On Friday morning New York Red Bulls announced the dismissal of head coach Chris Armas after two-and-a-half seasons in charge, with an interim manager to be announced at a later time. A late 1-0 loss to DC United at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday night appears to have been the final straw for newly-installed club sporting chief Kevin Thelwell following weeks of anemic form and erratic personnel choices in the post-pandemic return of MLS play.
Leaving with a 29-21-11 record in all competitions, Armas ultimately was unable to uphold the high standards that he had a significant role in setting at the club. A Long Island native and former assistant on Jesse Marsch’s staff, Armas entered the head job in July 2018 at one of the club’s highest moments when Marsch was promoted to RB Leipzig after a powerhouse first half of the season. Armas would successfully see that team through to the Supporters Shield trophy that year with a league record number of points, but things began to unravel for the Red Bulls under his watch soon after.
After the high-flying regular season, the team suffered a demoralizing loss to Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference Finals before regrouping with an even more concerning performance in the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League with a 6-2 aggregate loss to Santos Laguna. The team that set the league points record one year earlier and returned 10 of 11 starters went on to stumble through a 12th-place 2019 league campaign punctuated by injuries and communication breakdowns between Armas and multiple key starters who were eventually transferred out of the club.
The beginning of 2020 appeared to show a team potentially rejuvenated under Armas’ leadership with supposed problem players moved out and several new signings (including several backroom scouts and analysts) bolstering the team’s entry to a new era. But both before and after the interruption of play due to pandemic restrictions, the most troubling dynamics of the 2019 campaign - purposeless attacking play, unclear starter-backup hierarchies at multiple positions, cynical defensive bunkering in second halves - remained painfully present in Armas’ side. The wildly unexpected long-range goal by DC’s rookie Estonian striker Erik Sorga that negated the conservative approach taken by Armas in the second half appears to be a poignant end to a managerial tenure that never seemed confident in what it was pursuing.
It is unclear what is next for head of sport Kevin Thelwell and the Red Bulls. CJ Brown, the assistant headhunted by Armas upon his takeover of the head coaching job, was also released by the club Friday. Long-term assistants from the Marsch era Bradley Carnell and Preston Burpo remain as well as sporting director Denis Hamlett, now second-in-command to Thelwell. One potential caretaker coach could be New York Red Bulls II manager John Wolyniec, who would be personally familiar with much of the squad through his stewardship of the reserve team.
But in the long-term, Thelwell appears set to make by far the most significant decision of his tenure so far. After a year of watching the club unsuccessfully cling to the remains of the Marsch era, the team is now able to definitively move forward in his image.