MONTREAL – In an earlier incarnation of the Montreal Impact, Mauro Biello was a star player who occasionally had to jump a locked gate to gain access to their practice field.
The Impact's legacy of second-division championships was built on many of the 44-year-old Montreal native's on-field exploits. Now the club's head coach, he and his team are one win away from competing for the MLS Cup for the first time in their history.
"After I finished my playing career [in 2009], I had asked if there was an opportunity to be part of the organization as an assistant [coach]," Biello recalled on Monday at the Impact's final practice at Centre Nutrilait before leaving for Toronto, where they'll battle TFC for the Eastern Conference Championship on Wednesday (7 pm ET; FS1, TSN1/3/4/5, RDS).
"In the first couple of years before we came into the MLS, there was an opening, as an assistant coach had left that year. And I was given the assistant job, and from there I started to learn the trade and understand how to become a coach and learned from the coaches that I worked with. I think that was important in understanding the difficulties of the job."
Biello and the Impact won the American Professional Soccer League championship in 1994, and the United Soccer League First Division championship in 2004 and 2009. He then retired after 16 seasons with various pre-MLS incarnations of the Impact as the team's all-time leader with over 80 goals scored in more than 300 games for his hometown club.
"I was a captain – and towards the end, I obviously wasn't playing as much – but a big part of it was helping other players, helping younger players, so that it was something that I was comfortable in doing and transmitting my experiences to younger players and giving my insight to help out the team," Biello said of his journey into coaching.
"To be honest, until you experience it you really can't say. I couldn't say for you, 'Yeah, this is what I want to be.' But once I experienced it, I was lucky enough to have the experience and to learn and grow from it and at that point I said, 'OK, this is the path and this is what I could do.'"
That took Biello down a path that former Impact teammate Patrick Leduc never expected him to choose.
"I'm actually surprised that he turned out to be the coach of this team," said Leduc, now a soccer analyst for the Reseau des Sports (RDS) cable TV network. "I would have expected Mauro to be maybe a GM or a technical director, or whatever position that is, because I find he's a very rational person. He was the captain of this team but not the most outspoken or demonstrative type of person.
"I don't think you absolutely need that as a coach, but I just didn't expect him to take his licenses and go into coaching. I thought he might be more of a manager type of figure and realizing that all along he had that, I guess that interest, I don't want to say I'm proud of him – I'm very impressed by him."
Biello was on Jesse Marsch's staff when Montreal joined MLS as an expansion team in 2012. After Marsch parted ways with the team at the end of that season, Biello found himself running the Impact for several games in 2013 when new head coach Marco Schallibaum served various suspensions.
"I took over the team before Marco, actually, for the two-week period [of] training camp in Italy," Biello said. "And I was able to coach the team there and at that moment you start to get a taste of what it would be like being in charge. And when Marco took over that following year, there were different moments where he got suspended and I was able to be behind the bench.
"And I guess those are experiences that you take in terms of game management, in terms of how you prepare, what you say to the team, the clarity of your speeches and what you want to transmit to the team. So these are all things that, having experienced them, for sure helped me out now in my role."
Biello's coaching apprenticeship continued under Frank Klopas, who succeeded Schallibaum in 2014. The Impact went 6-18-10 for an MLS-worst 28 points, and the following season, Biello was named interim head coach on August 29, 2015 after Klopas was fired following a 2-1 loss at Toronto FC that dropped the Impact's record to 8-11-4.
Montreal went undefeated while winning four of their first six games under Biello. And at the end of their fourth season in MLS, the Impact won three of their last five regular-season games to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs.
"He is the kind of coach that studies the other team and shows you their weak point, and I don't think I've seen any coaches do that or been around many coaches that do that," said Montreal winger Dominic Oduro, an 11-year veteran of seven MLS teams. "Every game, he analyzes it and he's very critical and very tactical about how to approach them. I know there was a little bit of ups and downs, but guess what, we were able to fix it and now we're in the conference final.
"So he's that kind of coach that has that charisma, and also that ability for him to like pinpoint other teams' weaknesses and how to pounce."
Last year's Knockout Round win over Toronto was followed by a narrow Conference Semifinal loss to Columbus, and Biello had the word "interim" removed from his title heading into this season. It marked a hard-earned breakthrough for a selfless native son.
"He was a dedicated player, very professional, always willing to put in the work on the field," Leduc said. "He was a good goal scorer, but he had years where he was asked to change his position. You look at Wayne Rooney now in England, and he's very contested about, you know, he should be playing in midfield. Mauro had to play in midfield some years, he didn't score as many goals but would keep working on his finishing during games and then would come back and score important goals because he was that player that would strive when it was important, raise his game, raise his intensity, and always played an important role for the team.
"So I think it's within your personality. And when you are able to communicate that, transmit that to players, I think they realize it, even though some of them never saw him play, they realize he was doing it on the field, he's doing it now and he's surrounded by people he believes in."
Now, after squeezing their way into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Impact have won four straight playoff games – after failing to win consecutive games all season. With a 3-2 win over TFC at Stade Olympique in the first leg of the Conference Championship, Montreal are one positive result away from MLS Cup.
Biello will have a solid 11 in place to start at BMO Field on Wednesday night – and a global soccer legend available off the bench, thanks to the coach's adept management of star Didier Drogba, who infamously refused to accept a substitute's role in Montreal's final regular-season meeting with TFC.
"He's respected by the players, but he's had to deal with Didier Drogba, who is, by himself, maybe bigger than not only the club, bigger than MLS," Leduc said of Biello. "I was extremely impressed by the way he's handled a personality like that. I think Drogba wants the team to win, but he's also somebody who has his demands that we don't always know about.
"So I think [Biello's] been pretty good at making sure he's getting the best from him on the field, and avoiding as many distractions as possible – even though I don't think he can contain all of them, as we could see the last time they played Toronto in the regular season here in Montreal. And even that situation, I think [Biello] found a way of winning … his team's been winning and he got the best from them."