The storybook ending wasn't in the cards for Didier Drogba, whose Phoenix Rising fell to back-to-back USL Cup winner Louisville City.
Louisville is where the careers of legends are typically launched around the track and coronated in the victory circle at Churchill Downs.
About a mile to the east, though, at the University of Louisville's far-less decorated Lynn Stadium, one of the greatest and most accomplished horses the soccer world has ever known went out to pasture with far less fanfare.
After 14 trophies with Chelsea–including the UEFA Champions League title–and another three with Galatasaray, Didier Drogba, at 40, capped his career as a USL runner-up. Drogba has said this was going to be his last season as a player. He reiterated that last week to SI's Grant Wahl, saying "I think it's time to stop." The storybook ending would've been Drogba lifting trophy No. 18, helping carry his band of Phoenix Rising FC teammates to championship glory. Instead, it's Louisville City continuing to write its own story, winning back-to-back USL titles after a 1-0 triumph in its home stadium Thursday night.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: A day after the USL Cup final, Drogba tweeted an indication that he won't necessarily be hanging up the boots after all, leaving the door open for a return to the field at 41)
Let it be known that what was said to be Drogba's final match was not a masterpiece. It was a grind-it-out final–perhaps influenced by nerves–marked by ill-advised touches, missed opportunities and overhit shots. The goal, ultimately a well-taken blast from close range by Luke Spencer, came after a game of pinball after a corner kick wasn't properly cleared.
Drogba himself did not have a turn-back-the-clock kind of night, but then again, he's 40. His chief moments came from dead-ball situations, and, perhaps feeling the weight of trying to cap his career with a title, he overdid. He had two free kicks from the 25- and 30-yard ranges sail way over the bar. He had another 25-yarder in the 38th minute sail tantalizingly close to the frame and had yet another close call from 18 yards out in the run of play in the 44th.
His top two highlights came in the opening 25 minutes. In the sixth minute, he stepped over a free kick just a couple of yards outside the center circle in Louisville's half and had a go. In the 24th, he sprung, with a back-heel flick in traffic, what was Phoenix's best chance of the night, but Jason Johnson ultimately had his deflected chance saved by Greg Ranjitsingh.
In desperation time, Drogba opted for the audacious, trying to bicycle-kick home the equalizer, only to miss the 88th-minute connection. And in second-half stoppage time, his flicked-on header from a corner kick was agoniziginly close to tucking inside the far post.
So no, Drogba won't get his farewell trophy. But he appears at ease, and for good reason. This is man who had a hand in stopping a civil war in his native Ivory Coast over a decade ago. He's played on countless major stages and scored the equalizing goal and clinching penalty in Chelsea's 2012 Champions League triumph. He's already gotten a head start on his post-playing career, as part-owner of Phoenix Rising. Reaching the USL title podium was one of his goals. Helping secure the club an MLS expansion bid is an even bigger one.
His work on the field may be done, but his focus off of it is just getting started.