HARRISON, N.J. — In the Hudson River Derby, they will forever be intertwined.
Much like David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips who were the high-scoring longtime faces of this clash of colors, New York City FC coach Dome Torrent and his New York Red Bulls counterpart Chris Armas are linked because of when they took over their respective clubs.
Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira, who left to become the manager at Nice in France’s Ligue 1, last June. Armas stepped in for Jesse Marsch, who went to coach at RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga a month later.
Armas first game in charge was also Torrent’s first taste of the Hudson River Derby as a 1-0 NYCFC win at Yankee Stadium July 8 ushered in a new era of this heated rivalry.
A little more than one year later, the two will be hoping to lead the respective clubs to victory in the first of two anticipated regular season showdowns Sunday at Red Bull Arena.
A lot has changed in 371 days for Torrent, who saw immediate success at the helm, followed by struggles through most of the second half of the season before a playoff ouster by Atlanta United.
He’s then had to find a way to replace the club’s first-ever signing as the iconic Villa left to play in Japan after his contract expired. There were some early-season hiccups and even rumors of Torrent being on the hot seat as NYCFC went winless through the first six weeks of the season.
But, through different formations and lineups, Torrent said there’s an understanding now of how he wants to play and the different formations his club can play in. The result has been a 12-match unbeaten streak in league play, which was snapped by the Portland Timbers last Sunday.
He’s talked about the importance of playing positionally, a concept that has trickled down from by the late Johan Cruyff while he was the manager of Barcelona (1988-96) to Pep Guardiola and now Torrent at NYCFC.
“I understand much better the quality of our players and the players understand the reason why I want to play in that way,” Torrent said in a conference call with reporters Saturday.
Although he lost his first game in charge, Armas’ success was immediate and the transition from Marsch’s assistant to head coach was seamless. The Red Bulls lost just two more times in their final 17 games of the 2018 season, ending on a five-game winning streak en route to a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years.
Like Torrent, Armas has had to deal with an influential player leaving in the offseason when Tyler Adams joined Marsch at Leipzig in December. But while NYCFC’s scoring has been almost evenly distributed between new signings Heber and Alexandru Mitrita as well as Maxi Moralez and Taty Castellanos, the Red Bulls are still feeling the effects of Adams’ absence.
Armas has also had to navigate a first-half of 2019 that has seen star players Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long and Wright-Phillips miss significant time due to injury and international call-ups, as well as opponents changing their tactics to negate the Red Bulls high-pressing ways.
“I’m continuing to learn every day, that part of it shouldn’t stop, but I think we’ve tried to add a lot of different things to our team and expand on who we are, some principles against the ball, and some with the ball that we’ve tried, and I think it shows in certain analytics, maybe against the ball and we have lots of guys scoring goals,” Armas said after training Friday. “For me, there’s a realness around here and most every day its how good we can be at being Red Bulls? We try to play fast, entertaining, vertical, we try to play narrow, we compress spaces and try to control the game against the ball and then I think that we can see with the ball we can manipulate things as well.”
Armas said he’s noticed a difference in NYCFC this year, with the implementation of more pressing and counter pressing and choosing, at times, to play more vertically than in the past.
“I would first say that you can see the team taking shape and I’ll say it again he’s done a real nice job with that team,” Armas said of Torrent. “They’re together, they’re organized, they have a clear way. And then in games they can do some different things.”
Torrent, too, has recognized some tweaks Armas has tried, from three in the back to two forwards, to trying to play more with the ball, while not losing their trademarked aggression.
But ultimately the Red Bulls are the Red Bulls, Torrent said, whether its New York, Leipzig or Salzburg.
“They have one style. I respect a lot this style. For me, the most important thing is to find the right style for your players and they signed these kind of players,” Torrent said. “They have a good mentality, they have physically special qualities, technically as well.”
“That is one style and I respect that,” Torrent added. “I prefer to play in another way, but I respect a lot this style because they get results, they were the [Supporters’ Shield] champions last year. That means its working.”
A new chapter in the Hudson River Derby was opened when a Bronx native took over the Red Bulls and a Spaniard who was Guardiola’s longtime assistant called New York City home.
They are different personalities, from different backgrounds with different footballing philosophies. It adds to the intrigue of a rivalry that has grown with every meeting and is a can’t-miss fixture around the league.