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Picking up the pieces from Chris Armas’ 2019, which mirrored Jesse Marsch’s 2016

Maybe this season wasn’t so unprecedented. Bad? Yes. But what if it is salvageable? 

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

CHESTER, Pa. – Outlined by the Commodore Barry Bridge, a playoff spectacle for those in navy and gold was a dastardly rehash for those wearing red by the river end.

James Justice

The New York Red Bulls’ swift, lively start to take 1-0, 2-0 and 3-1 leads was bookended by a gradual death by a thousand paper cuts, finishing in a season-ending 4-3 defeat to the Philadelphia Union, which would have been more painful if the feeling wasn’t so familiar.

But, the Red Bulls had been there before this season. First, in March, during the CONCACAF Champions League, when Omir Fernandez and Daniel Royer scored twice in the fourth and ninth minute to tie the aggregate series, only for Santos Laguna to methodically regain control and mercilessly score four in a span of nine minutes in the second half.

Then, in June, against the same Union team, in the same Talen Energy Stadium, when Kaku and Brian White scored in the first half, only for three second half Union goals to come – the first couple in a two-minute blur – and derail the Red Bulls just before the CONCACAF Gold Cup break.

Many Red Bulls supporters are directing their ire at head coach Chris Armas for this pattern. They say this is a product of Chris Armas’ attempt to be more selective about when and how to press. He addressed the crux of that after the loss on Sunday.

“You can see, they’re loading our backline, right?” Armas said. “So, now, they’re just playing direct. We’re a pressing team, but even out of the mid blocks, as you’re on the front foot, if you’re thinking it’s a day for [all-out pressing] and [the ball] is going over your head, yeah, there’s no sense to all-out press, if you want to control the game.

“So, then it becomes about second balls. And, when you win those second balls, when transition happens, now what? Is there another goal out there, can you keep the ball a little bit, or do you just play it back and forth?”

MLS: MLS Cup Playoffs-Round One-New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Eric Hartline--USA TODAY Sports

This can – and will be – interpreted through the anti-Armas lens, with the perspective that there should be no thought about what to do when the ball is won, that the Red Bulls should instinctively be direct in every situation.

But, the irony to that is, early in his tenure, Jesse Marsch was criticized for the opposite. As New York blew 20 points from winning positions in 2016 (Armas blew 22 points from winning positions this season), fans cursed a team that could not hold a lead. Many fans wished the team hadn’t pressed so aggressively late in games, and nothing Marsch tried – including switching to five at the back – fixed the issue.

Marsch even had the aid of a May addition in Aurelien Collin (there was no such trade or signing for Armas this season until Josh Sims in August), and while results improved, the issue of dropped points persisted. It wasn’t until 2017, when Aaron Long and Tyler Adams were promoted from Red Bulls II, that the pattern was broken.

With hindsight, one could argue the problem had little to do with how much Marsch was pressing, or whether or not he was bringing a fifth defender on, but that the team in 2016 was simply not strong enough to support the Red Bulls’ system. In 2018, with a vibrant backline and ball-winner in defensive midfield, both Marsch pressing all-out in the first half and Armas being more measured were effective. Marsch had 1.92 points per game and Armas 2.04 points per game.

Maybe the answer to the debate around Armas this season is not that his approach doesn’t work, but that he’s like Marsch in 2016, missing two integral pieces. A player of Tyler Adams skill set could be the first piece, and a goalscorer like vintage Bradley Wright-Phillips the second. On Sunday, after Sims and Kaku were forced off with injury, the Red Bulls only managed one shot in 50 minutes (compared to 11 in the prior 70 minutes). Two players can make an enormous difference.

Most will agree that Armas’ measured approach has been less captivating than the relentless style of Marsch, which can lend itself to more runaway wins. But, the real question is about results, and whether Armas’ wrinkle isn’t effective, or, like Marsch in 2016, his team in 2019 was not strong enough to support it?