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Chris Armas, the MLS is Back Tournament, and the problem with the old-fashioned will to win

Conventional approach to unconventional Orlando tournament is ultimately what cost the Red Bulls

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

The biggest mistake Chris Armas made in the MLS is Back Tournament was trying to win it.

After starting the makeshift Orlando round robin with the biggest gust of wind behind the club’s sails in some time, Armas’ old habits have given Red Bulls an early retreat from the “bubble” at the Disney compound. In an opportunity to make bold new strokes to give both team and his own job standing key momentum at the beginning of a transition era, Armas remained chained to convention and paid the price.

Though boilerplate press conference quotes are not always the most valuable pieces of information (Armas nor any coach at this level will ever say their goal is to have a fair, prudently-timed elimination) his statements in the leadup to the tournament expressed confidence that, due the team’s pressing tendencies and high fitness levels, a short-term focus on winning could secure an achievable trophy for the club.

His tactical choices were congruent with this attitude as well. Especially by the end of New York’s run, it was clear that the teams rolled out by Armas in Orlando were his idea of the club’s senior best eleven. The spine of Sean Davis and Cristian Casseres in midfield and the new central defensive partnership of Aaron Long and Amro Tarek started all three games along with the attacking trident of Kaku, Daniel Royer and Florian Valot, the scorer of RBNY’s only goal in the tournament.

After Valot’s early strike earned an opening night victory over Atlanta, Armas stuck with the same eleven against Columbus four nights later. Since his takeover from Jesse Marsch two years ago, Armas has frequently leaned on defending counterproductive lineup and personnel decisions by referring to flourishes that worked in the previous week’s now-forgotten victory. In 2019 the team never won more than two games in a row, and perhaps it does behoove Armas (or any manager) to seek a continuation of any tactical success he finds. But it cannot be doubted that the unrotated team began its downfall in Orlando by looking a step behind a Columbus team that rotated five of its starters, a dynamic that Armas at least tacitly acknowledged with halftime substitutions and stubborn postgame comments.

This is not to limit the scope of Red Bulls’ management concerns this month to just the Columbus match. Any debates over which games should have featured which rotation and/or experiments miss the broader issue. This was a tournament featuring massive variables - preseason-level match sharpness and conditioning, neutral spectator-free venue, the local and global stresses of the covid-19 pandemic - preventing any of the teams involved from being the best version of their past selves. And instead of using it to experiment, it was treated like a conventional regular season stretch - a formula Armas has yet to prove capable of executing anyway given last season’s results. That the Red Bulls looked largely the same as they did in 2019 is more alarming than if the team had looked sluggish or disjointed.

New York Red Bulls v FC Cincinnati
Kaku was a peripheral figure in the RBNY formation throughout the tournament

Even worse than the broader shape and spirit of the team, this month’s tournament continued the trend of individual-level underachievement from proven players under the direction of Armas. He remains hitched to tactical blind spots such as deploying Kaku in a static wing role (where, especially in the 4-4-2 formation, his role becomes devolved into a source of layoffs to overlapping fullbacks) and centering the more limited playmaking and delivery skills of Daniel Royer. Cristian Casseres, signed two years ago after shining in South American youth tournaments as a deep-seated ball-spraying holding midfielder, continues to be deployed in a confused box-to-box role that does not flatter his more deficient dribbling and off-ball skills. In fact it often seems Armas’ win-now “what worked last week” mindset leads him to deploy Casseres higher up the field in the hopes of lucking into one of his occasional long-range goals - at the expense of team shape and function in the remainder of the match. His substitutions against Cincinnati did not appear to come with a change to the aimless game plan either, with entrants such as Ben Mines and Marc Rzatkowski continuing a somewhat amateurish display of predictable crossing runs followed by attempts to win and hurriedly shoot second balls rather than build on the limited success found combining through the middle.

The fact remains that the 2020 squad assembled by Armas and his front office counterpart Denis Hamlett - one ostensibly more to their preferences following the departure of several key starters - is incapable of achieving the devastating press of the 2018 shield campaign and even less-equipped to play the more deliberate combination and possession style Armas has frequently discussed since taking over the job. Indeed Armas’ only true tactical wrinkle in the tournament was doubling down on this possession-oriented approach to break the bunker of Cincinnati through the deployment of Daniel Royer as a false 9.

Other aspects of Armas’s diagnosis of the team’s failures in Orlando echoed past excuses. He claimed the main areas for improvement following the Cincinnati crashout were hard work and attention to detail in what he believes is a “fine line in our league” between winning and losing. Even more grating were his comments following the Columbus match where he again trotted out a repeated line complaining that Columbus went “too far” in killing off the game and using what he perceived as time-wasting tactics - even while also offering that “Columbus is a good team” in an implication that Red Bulls should expect to be shut out by a team that finished 10th in the conference last season.

That press conference flourish captures what has (in the face of a muddled tactical character) been the only common thread of Armas’ managerial tenure - an emphasis on rote work ethic in his own team well as expectation-lowering praise to other teams that still manages to malign their supposed lack of sportsmanship in both time-wasting tactics and pragmatic defensive setups. Ironically, this mantra Armas frequently falls back on appears to have played a major role in the loss of the competitive, ruthless edge the same team held under the leadership of Jesse Marsch as well as the buy-in of key players who have been since cast off for not fitting the Armas ethos. The point of sportsmanship and good behavior is not to create excuses for failure and cast doubt on opponents who win fair and square. Eventually it achieves quite the opposite of the positive winning mentality Armas has sought to instill.

While Marsch embodied the technocratic future of the sport plotted out by Red Bull’s European overlords to a degree that was often annoying and obsequious, his former assistant Armas remains in persona and deed a throwback to the old school of Major League Soccer. Armas - who shied away from professional coaching jobs to work at college and high school levels in the Tri State Area after ending his distinguished playing career - leans much more of his social capital in the game on his familiarity within the small insular early world of MLS that was essentially a build out of the collegiate scene. The league Armas built his reputation in was one where limited budgets, facilities and talent led to a crap shoot mentality where tactical sophistication mattered less than pure work ethic and commitment - and where the technical development of younger players the way it is pursued today was not remotely in the equation. Winning games in this era was not a matter of tactics and talent but being one of the few teams to display a committed, professional attitude on the pitch. Armas’ exhortations for the team to behave like gentlemen - and pursue gimmick strategies like aiming balls at the hands of teams known to give up penalties - may have been adequate on the rented gridiron fields of the 90s, but in the modern world of Major League Soccer that Red Bull hopes to innovate in, it is a limited outlook.

An ad hoc tournament assembled to honor television contracts is surely not an ideal laboratory. But the failures of New York Red Bulls in it are precise examples of how Chris Armas’ difficulties with the modernities of the sport and MLS - whether it be makeshift pandemic tournaments, unreachable foreign players, or gamesmanship from opponents - are holding the team back. His short-term focus on the replicating the familiar that demotes the priority of developing new talent and reaching new tactical achievements betrays an insecurity and indecision that is out of place within Red Bull and the contemporary football world it hopes to be on the cutting edge of.

But to bring things back to the immediate and provide a final appraisal of the time Red Bulls spent in the Orlando bubble, Armas’ outdated sense of how you win and keep winning in any format of Major League Soccer has squandered a unique opportunity to appraise a plethora of new players as well as fringe veterans looking with a smaller window of opportunity than usual to earn new contracts.

And we didn’t even get a cup out of it.