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The Case For Armas Out

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A look at the quiet disaster that has unfolded as the Red Bulls head coach enters his third season in charge

New York Red Bulls Vs Los Angeles FC Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s not at all hot air.

Last season on my podcast View From 202 we bemoaned the management of the team a lot, eventually culminating in a clear and simple rallying cry: Armas Out. But so far, “Armas Out” has been a literal rallying cry from the stands of RBA and the mics of the smaller podcasts, but one largely ignored or challenged by those with larger platforms.

I haven’t yet seen a clear, one-stop-shop on everything wrong with the management as the season gradually unfurled into an incoherent mess. The idea that fans should even be disappointed at Armas’ stewardship of the team is often dismissed and indignantly questioned. Even the few remaining contrarian voices in RBNY fan media have a habit of tempering the idea that Armas should go by blending immediate problems into the long-term neurosis about the club’s failures, so let’s finally put the unvarnished case all down on paper.

The Armas regime has failed in three fronts: tactics, squad management, and being a standard bearer of the club and its ambitions.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Tactics

When it comes to the Xs and Os, Chris Armas has done worse than get it wrong. The tactical execution of the 2019 New York Red Bulls was such a mess that getting it wrong implies a coherent plan that was simply not adhered to. Fans who watched essentially this same squad of players set the league points record one year prior could tell you that this was not the case.

Here I think it’s useful to start with what I find to be the conventional defense of Armas, and work backwards. The short version is that he was “given” a mediocre, or even bad, squad. The longer reasoning goes something like this:

  • He lost Tyler Adams, a generational talent that made the whole RBNY system work
  • BWP finally hit the wall, and with it went our goal threat
  • Key players like Long and Parker received big raises and took their feet off the pedal

If this narrative seems especially prominent in league-wide coverage of the team (particularly MLS’s own state media including ExtraTime Radio), it makes a certain sense why: this is exactly what you would have said in November 2018 if someone asked you why the Red Bulls might regress in 2019. However the attention of league media is spread across 24 clubs - nobody should expect these figures to watch every single game and know the details of every single team’s form.

But nobody watching the Red Bulls with any focus should be coming to these conclusions, because none of this is borne out when you actually watch any games in 2019. In fact, the most direct counterexample actually comes from 2018.

In September of that year the Red Bulls defeated their main shield rivals Atlanta United without both Tyler Adams and Bradley Wright-Phillips in the lineup, and it wasn’t even close. Brian White and Marc Rzatkowski slotted in and the Red Bulls executed their most complete and smothering press since Jesse Marsch’s squad had destroyed NYCFC 4-0 at home in May. When Tata Martino refused to shake Armas’s hand at the final whistle we had one of the iconic moments of the season and one of the best days out all year.

Going into this game, I was on the fence about the trajectory of the club — the team’s form had been so-so since Marsch’s departure, winning only three of their last six, with two of those wins being 1-0 grinds in contrast to the flying first half of the season. Did Armas have a full grasp of the press? Had he been adding a “wrinkle” the last two months, or did he actually just have a loosening grasp on the system? After the match my fears were assuaged — the system was sound, we could turn it up when we wanted, and the team was truly the star.

This match was a throwback to the heady days of April and May, when the team was turning heads for its ability to throw any player into the first team and execute seamlessly, whether it was Aaron Long and Florian Valot making star turns into the starting lineup, or Hassan Ndam and Vincent Bezecourt with effective spot starts and cameos in the Open Cup. Even when playing a man down after an early Daniel Royer red card in Marsch’s final home match against Dallas, the system was enough to grab a 3-0 victory.

New York City FC v New York Red Bulls - MLS Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

After a full preseason of preparation and molding, 2019 was the total inverse. I’m at a loss for any example of a match where we tried to execute the 2018 plan but failed due to shortcomings in personnel or an effective tactical counter from the opposition. Instead, after several months of Armas discussing wanting to tweak and slow down the team’s previously frenetic play, we were subjected to frequent amateurish sequences of players standing 20 yards apart, receiving the ball and stalling as they had to pick their heads up to find teammates. This was a distinct and painful departure from what made the energy drink soccer era so great: the rigorous drilling of roles and press triggers that allowed players to enter a lethal trance as they confused opponents and combined with teammates in a single step.

None of this could be explained simply by opposing teams all of a sudden “figuring us out” months after setting the league points record. In fact, more than instances of it being attempted but foiled I have a much easier time identifying series of play where played like our old system and succeeded - namely, the first twenty minutes in Torreon and Yankee Stadium, where Omir Fernandez and Alex Muyl finished off quick, vertical sequences of play created by pressure up the field. But these moments were fleeting; the team always retracted back into a more limited and predictable press from the front three, and opponents as inept as Colorado, Orlando, and Montreal were able to beat us in boring wars of attrition, waiting for confused, tentative players to make simple mistakes while producing nothing going forward.

So then what was the difference between 2018 and 2019? Why was an Armas team able to facsimile the system well enough one year and not the next? The first factor is that it is easier to continue a regimen that is already in full swing, as it was in June 2018 at the time of Marsch’s departure. The second excuse may well be Tyler Adams after all. Seeing Adams shouting instructions at players almost twice his age had become a thrilling sight at RBA, and perhaps even more than a player, the Red Bulls lost an on-the-field coach in games and training sessions. If RBNY didn’t replace Adams, it was arguably in this coaching and leadership capacity just as much as his physical presence.

But the fact remains that the 2019 Red Bulls returned ten of eleven players from a record-setting, league-winning squad, including a back five decorated with international caps and league accolades, two of whom have since moved on to a regular UEFA Champions League club for seven-digit transfer fees. Though Bradley Wright-Phillips was mostly missing through an injury-addled campaign, the team managed to get decent production out of a USL-trained reserve forward corps including an eye-catching homegrown signing.

Talent remained and remains on the squad. Yet most of 2019 was spent in listless, confused play, leaving a CONMEBOL international playmaker isolated and bored in a static midfield. The premise that individual players simply turned it off for the 2019 season becomes strained when every single individual in the same team had a down year.

Which leads to an additional fourth point of defense of the team’s decline, but in my experience one that seems to be said separately or when all the others have been exhausted: that the team was suffering from a “hangover” with the squad in shock after the previous year’s crushing disappointment.

Unlike the first three, this isn’t so false on its face. It’s clear there was a morale slump in 2019, whether you see it in the thousand yard stares, the four-goal collapse in Torreón, or Sean Davis just straight up coming out and saying the squad was relieved to not be grinding in a shield race. This bleeds into the final point I’ll cover, so for now I will just pose: if team morale is not a part of the manager’s responsibility, what is?

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

Squad management

One level up from tactics is strategy: the long term plan for how the club understands its own strengths and weaknesses, and how to wield them effectively against opponents. In a soccer club this is, in part, reflected in how a manager understands and utilizes his squad over a season, and informs them how to adjust the lineup week-to-week as obstacles arise. Chris Armas appears to have weak command of this concept.

The most flagrant microcosm of his misguided squad management was at the right back position, which my View From 202 co-host Ben Cork recently wrote about at length. In short, Chris Armas was either unable to recognize Amir Murillo’s talent, or unable to bring it out of him. Instead of recognizing this and moving on, he yo-yoed four different players around in the position, confusing and harming the careers of not only Murillo, but Ethan Kutler, Kyle Duncan, and Rece Buckmaster as well. Sometimes good players and managers don’t mesh; it happens. But good managers are capable of drawing a clean break and signaling commitment to a new player on the squad. Chris Armas did the worst of all worlds.

There are examples beyond right back. Cristian Cásseres Jr., the heir apparent to Tyler Adams and focus of much of the club 2020’s preseason, did not make regular appearances until midseason. When Casseres finally did break into the lineup, his role next to Sean Davis seemed to change every match - alternately lining up as a deep anchor, a box-to-box number 8, and even sometimes as the 10 at the front of the midfield. Marc Rzatkowski became an inked-in starter in an advanced midfield role despite being a fragile super-sub and spot-starter in a more defensive role the year before. Omir Fernandez’s career took off with a bang in Torreón and the academy product from The Bronx played with an energy and urgency lacking in the rest of the squad in the league minutes he received, but his playing time mysteriously tapered off by mid-summer.

But in a mismanagement that affected the club and its spirit in a deeper way than on-field tactics, club talisman Bradley Wright-Phillips was practically disappeared from the team altogether. Official announcement of an injury was muddled and delayed, and BWP remained out of the team for nearly two months after what was initially described as a minor lingering groin strain. When he finally did return, it was through small substitute appearances where the final whistle would blow just as the five-year starter seemed to be establishing the rhythm so key to his game. Indeed, the received wisdom that BWP had “lost a step” seemed to reflect a complete ignorance of how he had scored his 126 goals for the club: not through sheer physical power but brilliant positioning, timing, and technique.

While BWP notoriously shied away from the spotlight and formal leadership roles, reviewing All Access videos from early 2018 still makes for a stark contrast to his complete absence in 2019. His last appearance at RBA was, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, a drab 0-0 draw against DC that ensured the Red Bulls would not host another home game. And his stilted departure suggests a breakdown of communication between the club legend and management. After years of solidifying BWP into a club icon and time to plan for an eventual graceful exit, Chris Armas and Denis Hamlett seem to have ended BWP’s career by sending an email and avoiding eye contact in the hallway.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Standard bearer of the club

This last one is important, and admittedly a little... pointed. By all public accounts, Chris Armas is a lovely man whom his colleagues have nothing but kind words for. When he was appointed manager, praise was effusive and genuine. And in the slice of life us fans can see in club-produced media, he does appear indeed to be a polite and sincere guy. He’s a local who was endearingly plucked out of hometown collegiate coaching by old teammate Marsch and has been on board for some of the club’s most successful campaigns.

Yet the transition to Armas as the main figurehead of the club has been a strange one. From 2015 to 2018, the club lived up to Marsch’s infamous town hall “play like an energy drink” decree, and developed a bruising, aggressive, and ambitious methodology that pushed to extremes. Players were asked to get stuck in on the field and log every single calorie in an app off of it. The management shrewdly found gems in the rough and unsentimentally traded captains according to the demands of the system. These obsessive high standards continue to be reflected by Marsch’s aggressive insertion of himself into Red Bull Leipzig and Salzburg, where he’s since gone viral for his demanding and passionate team talk against reigning champions Liverpool.

Chris Armas has been… different. He seems to prefer bringing in motivational speakers and gesturing towards slogans plastered on the wall. By his own admission, public speaking is not his strong suit and his often-frenetic oral delivery has been noted by many. This could be okay — there are different communication styles, some less verbal than others.

However, the results in this department have still been lacking. Communication and instilling confidence to both the team and its observers is one of the most important aspects of being a manager at the professional level - features that differentiate the head role from the assistant positions where Armas had previously excelled. Far too often, Armas appears out of his depth as the team figurehead.

In contrast to the fierce winning attitude of the Marsch era, Armas seems overly interested in cultivating a disarming sense of good sportsmanship first and foremost (this year’s club motto appears to be “togetherness”), with winning seen as a byproduct. After dropping points, he has seemed flustered or confused at the idea that we would expect to win so many games, and occasionally seems to locate winning as something partially outside of his agency at all, with a general refrain of “we’re trying” emanating out of press conferences and behind-the-scenes videos.

The low point from 2019 was when, after gifting his customary bottle of Casillero del Diablo to Dome Torrent (a recurring bit of genuflection towards a rival completely offensive to my senses), he whined about City’s time wasting after his team had stood still for some 70 minutes. Even when accepting the premise that we would prefer to win, he seemed incapable of locating any responsibility within his own side, or failing that, at least credibly insulting our rivals.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Listeners to the podcast might notice we’ve started using “2007 Chicago Fire” as a pithy shorthand referring to the Armas approach and its appearance as a retrograde recreation of the team and era that he and his first team staff cut their teeth in. It seems that he’s been yanked forward in time from his playing days of the 90s and 00s and has yet to notice the league has grown past being a cloistered, chummy collection of roughly equivalent talent playing roughly the same way. The 2018 season was remarkable across the league, as a small collection of elite clubs had assembled tactical and player development projects all cresting at the same time. Unfortunately Chris Armas seems to have not noticed, and is managing the team as though just running good practices with good hustle is not only what will deliver the goods, but is the only method available to deliver the goods.

I don’t want to go back to the way things were in 2007, either with soccer or having to sit through motivational speeches in middle school. I was immensely proud over the previous four seasons to support a club with ambition and the desire to constantly improve and humiliate their rivals. Jesse Marsch was not perfect, but one of his bigger shortcomings may have been not successfully cultivating this attitude in his assistants.

Going forward

In the 2020 season, I will be analyzing the team and the manager along these three criteria. And despite my distaste so far, I think there is actually some reason to believe two of these might improve. With a turned-over roster one year further removed from Marsch, it is possible the team will be able to more coherently execute a more generic style of soccer, free from the cognitive dissonance of trying to remember the intricate high press system. The manager will have a fresh start with several new players and no longer struggle with his “difficult” personalities. And honestly, it will be harder to do worse than last season anyway, especially with two new expansion teams joining the league.

However I must admit that even if Chris Armas is able to achieve a more stable, slightly-above-mediocre form, part of me will still wonder what could have been. Much of the pain of the 2019 season came from witnessing the slow, tortured death of energy drink soccer, and realizing no one was home to even know it was being killed. Unless he completely transforms into a cutthroat visionary with amazing communication skills, a new Armas equilibrium will likely amount to the shrinking into just another MLS club.

Since the opening of Red Bull Arena, the club has been at the bleeding edge of the league, winning it three times and topping the conference twice more. The club qualified for the Champions League every year since 2015, including a credible and daring run to the doorstep of the final. It boasted the best stadium in the league and a professional training ground years before other clubs. The first half of the decade it brought glamour and fame to Harrison with players like Thierry Henry, then the second half brilliantly transitioned into fostering local talent to beat the new haughty neighbors. After years of awkward cultivation of club character, including having a Cosmos player as our color commentator and chaotic MLS 1.0 rosters yielding only a smattering club icons (many of which with DC United on their resume) the team cultivated a stable of our own heroes headlined by Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles.

This nine year period is not a blip: it represents 40 percent of the club’s history. And it is the most recent 40 percent of club history. And mind you, the first 60 percent amounts to just fourteen years. When the Red Bulls kicked off the final against Columbus in 2008, only five clubs of fourteen had ever won it.

Whether they know it or not, many RBNY fans make a choice for which of these eras they locate their identity of the club. Is every match viewed as potential to build on the success we’ve seen since the opening of Red Bull Arena? Or is it another ore to mine for the coping mechanisms of the era before?

Red Bull New York is a big club. Even rivals’ taunts bear this out. No one bothers to taunt the Revs anymore; it’s punching down. Concerningly, no one seems to be bothering to taunt us right now either. Even City fans are more interested in freaking out among themselves than the easy dunk that they are playing continental soccer at our own stadium instead of us. I can’t help but feel a forgotten stash of wine in the basement of Yankee Stadium might have something to do with that.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports