HANOVER, N.J. — The chance Chris Armas has been waiting for is finally here — and he’s not about to let it slip away.
On Friday, the New York Red Bulls announced that Armas, an assistant coach for the last three-and-a-half years, is taking over as head coach after Jesse Marsch’s departure to “pursue other opportunities” in Europe.
Armas would have welcomed a chance to be a head coach anywhere, but he cherishes the fact his first opportunity in MLS is with the Red Bulls. He’s a boy from the Bronx who grew up on Long Island and played his college soccer there, at Adelphi University.
“You’ve got to start somewhere at this level as a head coach, and it was going to happen eventually,” Armas said. “I took the job four years ago not to be an assistant coach forever. It was coming, and now it’s just a dream come true to be right here.”
The irony that his first game in charge of the Red Bulls will be against New York City FC Sunday in the Bronx isn’t lost on Armas.
“I’m excited to get going, and no better way to start in a few days than a derby match with New York City,” he said.
It was not far from Yankee Stadium where Armas learned his work ethic. It was ingrained from his baseball-loving, blue-collar father, who would shield Armas from the ball in the backyard, constantly telling him, ‘You have to earn it.’”
Armas took that refrain with him and lived a childhood dream of playing professional soccer, enjoying a successful 12-year MLS career mostly with the Chicago Fire. He was also capped 66 times for the United States men’s national team, narrowly missing selection for the 2002 World Cup because of an ACL injury.
He wore the captain’s armband and was that hard-working central midfielder, the engine that made everything run smoothly.
New York Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett saw that first-hand as a Fire assistant coach from 1998-2007 and the club’s head coach for two years.
“He brought it every day, in training sessions, on the field. He just led by example, and you can see his ability to sort of connect with people and bring them on board and get them to push themselves to the next level,” Hamlett said. “When you’re a captain you see signs that these are qualities you’re going to have to be a good coach. From Day 1, he had it. He had it when he played with the national team, he had it when he played with Chicago.”
Armas said he soaked up the best, and worst, from all of his coaches, a virtual who’s who of influential power brokers that included Bruce Arena, Dave Sarachan, Bob Bradley, Octavio Zambrano, Juan Carlos Osorio, Alfonso Mondelo, Bob Montgomery and Manny Schellscheidt.
“I’ve just been so fortunate to be around these gentlemen, and I’m always watching and learning and listening and picking up as much as I can,” Armas said.
The same is true of his close relationship with Marsch, who he said is like a brother to him. On the commute to the Red Bulls training facility every morning, Armas and Marsch would talk on the phone.
The constant communication continued on planes and in hotels, on bus rides to visiting stadiums and in the coaches room.
“What a time we spent together,” Armas said. “And he epitomizes leadership. I’ve been taking it in, learning along the way as a player and it’s worked for me. I’ve led teams to trophies, I’ve been part of winning in a leadership role.”
Now Armas is ready to do the same as the head coach of the Red Bulls, hoping to lead the team to its first-ever MLS Cup. Before departing, Marsch said he believed this was the best Red Bulls team he’s coached, and the results in the first half of the season back that up. The team is currently second in the Eastern Conference, five points behind leaders Atlanta United with three games in hand.
A midseason coaching upheaval could detour those plans, but this transition is as seamless as possible. Armas is intimately familiar with the Red Bulls system. He knows the players and the front office staff.
“Probably most of all that will help in a transition here, and I can see it over two days. There’s respect that I’ve given and I’ve gotten from guys, and I can feel that, that there’s real support from the players. And at the end of it, that’s what it’s about — the players in our circle and how we’re going to push forward,” Armas said. “I think there’s a built-in trust, and relationships are there and established. It’s to build on that, just with a different voice. I’m excited and ready for this leadership role and to push this group.”