MONTREAL — On the surface, the only noticeable change in the Montreal Impact this season is the absence of superstar Didier Drogba.
But the Chelsea legend who tore up Major League Soccer when he joined the Impact late in 2015 campaign had been reduced to bench duty by the end of last season and was no longer the centrepiece of the attack.
The starting 11 that got on a roll last September and took the Blue and Black to their first Eastern Conference final is back in full and there were only a few changes to the supporting cast in the off season.
Whether that group can do that well again, or go even farther, will be the main question when the regular season opens Saturday in San Jose.
"It was important for us to bring back some key players, like Dom Oduro and Matteo Mancosu," coach Mauro Biello said Tuesday. "We signed Patrice Bernier.
"We wanted to have that continuity within the group and have little additions that can improve the team."
For added star power, they must wait for June when Swiss international midfielder Blerim Dzemaili is scheduled to join them from Italian Serie A club Bologna FC.
Until then, the returning first 11 has goalkeeper Evan Bush, centrebacks Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera, fullbacks Hassoun Camara and Ambroise Oyongo; centre midfielders Hernan Bernardello, Marco Donadel and Bernier; right midfielder Oduro with Ignacio Piatti on the left side; and centre forward Mancosu.
That group, which has nine players 30 or older, is not set in stone, however.
Bernier, a 37-year-old Brossard, Que., native, inked a one-year deal to play his final season before moving into a job in the organization. A newcomer, 24-year-old Argentine Adrian Arregui, may take minutes away from Bernier once he has adjusted to his new team.
The aquisition of Chris Duvall, a starter last year on a good New York Red Bulls side, will push Camara for playing time at right back. Duvall's presence also gives Biello an option to move Camara into the middle when needed.
And Andres Romero, the Impact's player of the year in 2014, is back after missing the entire 2016 campaign with a knee injury. The 27-year-old attacking midfielder usually plays on the right side, but can also line up in the middle.
"It's important that we have competition within the group," said Biello. "There needs to be pressure.
"You don't want complacency in terms of player selection and that's why, when we make certain adjustments, it's about keeping people honest in their roles and pushing each other in the right way. In the end, the field will talk and the performances will determine certain positions."
The Impact should also benefit from having a healthier Ciman around for most of the season. The 2015 MLS defender of the year missed a long stretch of 2016 playing for Belgium at the European Championship and then worked through a sore ankle.
Montreal will start the season with the three-pronged weapon of Oduro, Piatti and Mancosu on attack that filled the net late last season and in the playoffs. Oduro has predicted that at least one of them will score 20 goals. The most likely would be Piatti, who is coming off a 17-goal campaign.
Biello, the Montreal native entering his second full season after taking over from Frank Klopas in September 2015, also wants to adjust the team's game so that it spends less time defending in its own zone and more time harassing opposition goalkeepers.
"Having a little more of the ball, not staying so low in the defensive phase, trying to recover the ball a little higher — these are things we want to improve in our play," he said. "To continue to have that cohesion but at the same time tweak a little in both sides of the game."
They also hope to be better defending on free kicks and corners, but that has been a sore spot since they joined MLS in 2012.
A weakness, at least until Dzemaili arrives, is a lack of experienced depth up front, where teenage midfielders Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla and David Choiniere may get some playing time. Academy product Anthony Jackson-Hamel and recent draft picks Nick De Puy and Michael Salazar back up Mancosu.
The supporting cast has had minor changes.
Impact academy product Maxime Crepeau has moved up to the backup goalkeeper's spot while veteran Eric Kronberg will serve as third-stringer and help coach the younger players.
Former Toronto FC left back Daniel Lovitz was signed in camp to take over from the departed Donny Toia as a backup to Oyongo.
Returnees also include central defender Wandrille Lefevre and midfielder Calum Mallace, who is back for a sixth season.
Also gone are midfielders Harry Shipp and Kyle Bekker.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press