Many Montreal Impact fans lament the fact that their soccer team's form on the road is so poor. However, a quick look at MLS Away Records shows that only 1 of the 20 teams actually has a winning record on the road - the Vancouver Whitecaps (7-6-3).
Getting points on the road in MLS is difficult, that is certain. But putting together respectable performances is not impossible. For example, the Impact played respectably in New York last Wednesday despite being down a man early on and save for the first chunk of the second half in which NYRB had the entirety of possession.
This begs the question: Are the Impact really that bad of an away team relative to the rest of the league?
The key word here is "relative." If 19 of 20 teams have losing road records, then to say that the Impact have a poor road record is meaningless. Therefore, we must look at the Impact's road record as compared to their home record relative to the rest of the league.
To do this, one must turn to statistics. Below is an ordered list I've compiled showing each team's Home/Away PPG Differential (Home PPG minus Away PPG). A low differential implies that the team performs about as well on the road as at home. A high differential implies that a team performs significantly better at home than on the road.
As we can see from the data, the Impact's average difference between home and away games is 1.34 points. Only the LA Galaxy have a worse Home/Away PPG Differential. And FC Dallas aren't much better than the Impact, with a difference of 1.33.
Ironically, the Galaxy and FC Dallas are two of the better teams in the league (if not the best). At least we can conclude that to be the best team in the league in MLS, you don't necessarily have to get results on the road. But for a team like the Impact who are more likely to fight for a playoff spot than the Supporter's Shield more years than not, maximizing road results is key.
One reason the Impact could be having trouble on the road is travel. It's no secret that Montreal is a long ways away from California, but all teams have to deal with approximately the same amount of travel kilometers per year. Why should Montreal's travel hurt them more than it hurts others?
It is possible that Montreal's reliance on non-North American players could be having an effect. The geography of our league, which spans two of the biggest countries on Earth, is such that traveling from one game to another requires more time and effort than other country's leagues. A kind of mid-week effort that players used to European or South American travel simply may not be acclimatized to yet. some of the players that Montreal has leaned on this year (Piatti, Drogba, Ciman, Romero, Cabrera, and now Venegas) are used to significantly less travel in their previous leagues.
The trip from Rome to Florence in Serie A, or from Barcelona to Madrid in La Liga, or from Munich to Hannover in the Bundesliga, or any travel within Greater Buenos Aires in the Primera Division, is nothing compared to a flight from Vancouver to Orlando which spans over 3000 KM and four time zones.
Although Montreal does seem to tend toward a particularly international flavor with their roster (and always has), many MLS teams are moving toward a more international roster as roster limitations are slowly loosened in conjunction with the growth of the league. So this may not be a suitable excuse, especially relative to the rest of the league.
What's most likely is that the Impact spent the beginning of the year under Frank Klopas who treated the team as an underdog despite looking like a formidable bunch on paper. This underdog mentality worked in CONCACAF when the Impact truly were the inferior team. They played aggressively on defense, they slowed the pace of the game, they were plucky, they got under opponents' skin, they grinded, and they were not fun to play against. It was the perfect recipe for playing against superior teams.
Unfortunately that mentality continued in MLS play where IMFC should have thought of themselves as equals worthy of being there. Even if it was not explicitly announced by coach Klopas, it appeared as though the Impact players would head into opposing stadiums thinking "let's just get out of here with a tie." A tie on the road is nothing to scoff at in MLS, but it's the emotional uneasiness that comes with that mentality that seemed to do the Impact in.
Since Mauro Biello has taken the wheel of the Impact ship, they have collected two ties on the road in LA and San Jose and two losses in Orlando and New York. That means an average of 0.5 PPG on the road since Biello became head coach. This is not especially impressive but what's important to note about the two losses, though, is that the team did not look helpless and vulnerable. They were not there to tie at best. It looks as though Biello's road mentality and home mentality are similar: yes, it is more difficult to get results on the road, but we are going to try.
Leaving Marco Donadel as a lone holding midfielder in favor of two attacking central midfielders is just one tangible tactical example that illustrates this. Other examples include Ignacio Piatti seemingly being given a little more room to maraud and little to no defensive responsibilities. Nigel Reo-Coker has experienced an offensive re-birth under Biello. And suddenly we remember that Patrice Bernier has some offensive flare.
In both Orlando and New York the Impact could have potentially come away with a different result if only for a matter of inches or whistles in either direction. And even if that isn't true, what's even more important is that the feeling while watching the games was different. From the fan's perspective, the players on the field seemed more determined and loose. They were not there to not lose - they were there to try to impose their game plan. Of course, Biello is also the beneficiary of a little luck, as the addition of Didier Drogba would buoy any team.
It was time, as in the natural development of any team, for the Montreal Impact to become aggressors and not merely passive survivors when it came to how to approach away games. Mauro Biello has taken decisive first steps, and now has games in Colorado and New England to prove it.