Jesse Marsch said in a final sit-down as Red Bulls head coach this week that the first order of business when he took over in Jan. 2015 was to make Chris Armas part of his technical staff.
Armas was born and raised in New York, but never once suited up for the MetroStars or Red Bulls during his 14-year career; a career in which he earned many accolades, including 2000 U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year.
In the beginning of a hyperbolic 2014-15 winter that defined the Red Bulls’ current trajectory, Armas was initially planning on a fifth season as head coach of the women’s soccer team at his alma mater, Div. II Adelphi University in Long Island. It was the first head coaching job for Armas until early Friday morning, when the Red Bulls appointed him as Marsch’s successor.
“His commitment to staying in this community and being a part of this community – I mean, he’s a true New Yorker – has meant that he’s just sort of patiently waited for, partly an opportunity, but partly to see this club grow to be everything that we know it can become,” Marsch said of Armas, in a farewell video this week.
Marsch walked into bedlam in 2015 after the firing of fan favorite Mike Petke. Handling a radioactive fan base with poise and grace, Marsch and company prophesied a future of success on the field, but one without the need for glamorous names, instead emphasizing an integration of youth players.
“This team survived so much on its talent, okay, and making plays,” Marsch said during the infamous town hall in Jan. 2015. “Which was fun to watch, believe me, the four years of Thierry Henry, I loved watching it as much as you guys did.”
“But, I think we can all understand that this needs to take a little bit of a shift, right,” Marsch went on to say. “Away from the superstars and more into an identity of a group of guys whose ready to give everything they have for each other.”
Marsch was berated in that town hall, with threats from fans that he should lose his job after one season, if he did not immediately equal Petke’s Supporters’ Shield standard. Miraculously, the first-year head coach led his team to a Supporters’ Shield by October, and in three-and-a-half years developed an identity that is predicated on the team’s success being bigger than any one person.
“Saying goodbye to everybody will be hard, will be really hard,” Marsch said this week, with tears forming in his eyes. “But, I’m so proud of them.”
Whether or not the club truly is bigger than any one person will be determined by how the team responds to Marsch’s departure, a loss which is undoubtedly the most devastating for the Red Bulls since his hire.
Unlike Marsch, who had to reignite the franchise, Armas is tasked with making the transition from lead assistant to head coach, and keeping the team on course for its lofty objectives in the process.
With Marsch, the trajectory this season has been pointing toward contention for a third Supporters’ Shield, and the team being as serious a threat as ever for MLS Cup. And for a fan base that is starving for its first major championship, a divergence from that course will conjure painful speculation of what could have been this season, had management stayed intact.
But Armas has been preparing for a moment akin to this his whole life. He spoke in a sit-down this week, in addition to a press conference on Friday, about the intersection of preparation and opportunity. Much like the sporting director that appointed him, Denis Hamlett, Armas had to work for over a decade before receiving his breakthrough in professional coaching.
“In general, life is about opportunity,” the 45-year-old Armas said ahead of his official appointment this week. “No matter what walk of life, as a new dad, as a pro coach, as a school teacher, whatever your role is, you look for these opportunities, and many times you create them, by putting yourself in a good spot. And once that door knocks, you take advantage of that opportunity.”
Armas was alongside Marsch nearly every step of his three-and-a-half-year journey. The two share a fundamental belief in tactics on the field, and even more so, a similar engagement when speaking about playing philosophy away from the field. In his first interviews as head coach, Armas displayed a passion and excitement in his words, a sort of unapologetic, New York version of Marsch’s fast-talking, high-energy moxie.
The newly-appointed head coach knows the biggest challenge for any managerial adjustment – especially in this rare case where an assistant is appointed in the middle of a successful season – is to gain the respect of one’s players. Truth be told, though, Armas has already built up a good deal of credibility with the current Red Bulls team.
“I love the players, and they know I love them,” Armas said this week. “And it’s sometimes hard messages, and sometimes it’s a hug or an arm around them. But, I’ve earned respect, I’ve given respect. Now it’s about, now taking another step in the process and relationship.”
An internal hire like Armas goes a long way in ensuring that the positive energy inside the Red Bulls locker room is not damaged by the loss of Marsch, but nothing is guaranteed.
New York has shown that it can continue its upward ascent after the loss of two captains, Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan, in addition to notable starters such as Lloyd Sam, Mike Grella and Felipe. But, the loss of a person that spearheaded the organization on the field is a change more challenging than any previous adjustment.
For Armas, there is nothing new to construct, no empty canvas to paint. Instead, he now sits down with the watercolor and brushes handed to him, and a mixture of colors in front of him that are several careful strokes away from being a masterpiece. Marsch will be remembered as the one who started the painting, but if Armas can manage to contribute the finishing touches, it will be his initials that go on the work of art.
“Moving on, that will be hard, because, everyone here has meant so much to me…but it’s time for other people to take it over,” Marsch said in his farewell, holding back emotions.
“And, I’ll tell you, I can’t wait to see him [Armas] lift MLS Cup, it’s his turn,” Marsch said.