The Impact have the playoffs, Supporters Shield and Champions League knockout stages well within sight, but they could also miss out on all three if they’re not careful.
The race for the playoffs and Supporters Shield is on for the Montreal Impact.
With last Saturday’s 5-0 drubbing of the Houston Dynamo, the Impact find themselves only four points behind league leaders Real Salt Lake and five points clear of the Dynamo in sixth place in the Eastern conference with ten games remaining.
Although the Impact are riding high from two consecutive home wins, losses in their next two road games in New England and Philadelphia would likely see them drop down the standings once again and move dangerously close to a place outside the top five - and given the Impact’s poor record on the road this season, that isn’t by any means unlikely.
But as much as the Impact haven’t fared all that well away from home, neither has the vast majority of teams across MLS. Kansas City and Salt Lake, with five wins apiece, are the only teams that can boast of having positive records on the road.
“It’s very difficult to win away,” Montreal coach Marco Schällibaum told reporters this week. “You saw Kansas lose in Chicago; Chivas won against the Red Bulls – that’s part of the league. We need to be stronger than we were in the last games on the road. Only winning at home is not enough to get into the playoffs. We need to take some points somewhere.”
Given just how strong the Impact have been at home this season – they’ve only lost one out of 13 games - they may not need a whole lot of points from their remaining six road games to make the playoffs. But in order to close the gap on RSL and win the Supporters Shield, they’ll most certainly need a couple wins outside Saputo Stadium.
The good news for the Impact is that they have managed to recover from July’s apparent drop in fitness.
Also, after constant tactical reshuffling throughout the season, Schällibaum has seemed to have found his best 11 - the same 11 that started and won the Impact’s last two league games - just in time for the most pivotal stretch of the season.
The addition of designated player Hernan Bernardello has certainly made a big difference. Not only can the 27-year-old Argentine cover ground and recover balls in midfield, he’s skilled in possession, has exhibited an excellent range of passing and has also made an instant impact with his quality deliveries on set pieces. He’s already formed an excellent partnership with Patrice Bernier in the center of the park and has helped the Impact transform into a more possession-oriented team.
Now that the Impact have a much more definitive understanding of how it is they wish to play, they should start to be a lot more dangerous and effective away from home.
Champions League becomes a three-horse race
The Impact and the San Jose Earthquakes were supposed to duke it out on their own for supremacy of Group 5 in the CONCACAF Champions League. yet Guatemalan side CD Heredia has taken the lead in the group after beating the Impact 1-0 last week and then beating San Jose by the same score on Wednesday in Guatemala City.
To guarantee progress to the knockout stage of the tournament, the Impact will need to beat the Earthquakes in San Jose and then beat Heredia by more than a goal in case the Guatemalan side manages to defeat the Earthquakes in the final game of the group.
But if Montreal only manages a draw against San Jose, and Heredia are able to win instead, then Heredia would finish first.
Despite the fact that 'Quakes have lost their first two games, they can still qualify by winning their final two matches by a two goal margin.
Ordinarily, the Impact and the Earthquakes should have little trouble in beating Heredia at home, but if the Impact can only manage a draw in San Jose then the Earthquakes will no longer have anything to play for by the time the Guatemalan side comes to town and could accordingly decide to field a reserve side – or just not approach the game in a serious manner.
Though the Impact will need to get a result against San Jose, the game will offer them a favourable dynamic. With the 'Quakes needing at least two goals, if they start running out of time while the game is still deadlocked or if they're only ahead by one goal, they will be forced to open up and take risks, leaving Montreal with potential counterattacking opportunities.
Still, getting a result in San Jose won't be easy, even if the Impact do field a first choice eleven.
Qualifying to the knockout stages was always going to be tricky business, but now it’s certainly gotten a lot more complicated for the Impact than they would have hoped.