TORONTO, Canada—The Chris Armas era has arrived.
When news broke Wednesday afternoon that the former New York Red Bulls manager would indeed be the next head coach of Toronto FC, it took many fans by surprise.
With the likes of Laurent Blanc, Patrick Vieira, and Vincenzo Montella all being interviewed for the position, and given how adamant Ali Curtis and Bill Manning were about TFC being a big club, it’s safe to say that Armas wasn’t the “big” name many TFC supporters were hoping for.
“We wanted to be sure,” Curtis told reporters on Thursday, acknowledging the perhaps unpopular decision. “We wanted to make sure that we were doing everything that we could do to make the right decision—and not just the right decision that appease folks on Twitter for a moment or on different social media platforms.
“We wanted to make the right decision for the club because we know how that will translate into outcome and what’s best for the club, what’s best for the city, what’s best for the team.”
It’s no secret that from a fan perspective at first glance, the hiring appears to be underwhelming.
But that doesn’t mean Armas isn’t the right person for the job. Here is my latest TFC Notebook.
Let’s learn from our mistakes
I’ll begin this notebook with a little anecdote.
There’s precedent for a move like this working out for Toronto FC. Take the club’s previous head coach, Greg Vanney, for example. When an inexperienced Vanney with zero head coaching experience took over from Ryan Nelsen in 2014, like Armas, he wasn’t exactly welcomed by the fanbase with open arms.
“The first game that I walked out for Toronto FC as the coach, I remember implicitly a fan behind me who I’m sure now is a friend because I’ve interacted with most of those guys at some point, but they yelled out: ‘Hey Vanney, I hope you’re renting,’” recalled the former Toronto coach to reporters in his final press conference. “That was I think the first voice that I heard in my stretch as a coach at TFC.”
A treble and six of the most successful years in franchise history later, and Vanney was able to look back and chuckle as he recalled that story from his first real day on the job. And if the reign of the club’s all-time winningest coach has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a book by its cover.
A coach that’s easy to root for
The deeper you dig, the more real the Vanney–Armas ties become.
That’s not to say Chris Armas is Greg Vanney, even though the two are good friends and the L.A. Galaxy ties are real. But the truth is, like Armas, the gold that was Vanney was never in his coaching resume. It wasn’t in the accolades that he racked up. Rather, it was the person that he was and the relationships that he managed to form and maintain; it was the philosophy that he was able to implement on and off the field.
When you listen to Jonathan Osorio, Justin Morrow, and former TFC defender Drew Moor speak about their former head coach, we quickly got the sense that Vanney was someone that his former players would run through a wall for.
That’s why getting a person of strong character was imperative to Manning and Curtis as they began their search at the beginning of last month for a new head coach. And based on comments from the TFC general manager among others on Wednesday and Thursday since Armas’ appointment, it appears that, at least from that perspective, the team hit the jackpot.
“During my career, I have been fortunate to have had the experience of interacting with football professionals both domestic and abroad,” said Curtis in a team press release appointing Armas. “The integrity, authenticity, and professionalism that Chris possesses is unmatched when I think of professionals in the game...”
Team captain Michael Bradley, who has known Armas for a number of years through his father Bob Bradley, echoed that same sort of sentiment on Wednesday in an interview with TorontoFC.ca
“Chris and I have an incredible relationship, going back to 1998, when he was a part of the expansion Chicago Fire team playing for my dad,” said Bradley. “... I think he’ll command the respect from the group from the second he walks through the door.”
“Again, it’s really exciting,” Bradley added. “... I couldn’t have been more excited. I’m not the player or the leader or the competitor that I am without Chris.”
Having your captain buy in is huge, but being a good person is only part of the equation...
Don’t let the narrative take away from his resume
While he is by all accounts a good person, take nothing away from Armas and what he’s been able to accomplish in Major League Soccer (MLS).
“Chris has an excellent winning pedigree and is a fiery, competitive guy who wants his teams to play on the front foot. He is the right fit to build upon the foundation that’s been established at TFC,” said TFC President Manning in a press release Wednesday.
The former defensive midfielder is one of only five players in league history to have been named to the MLS Best XI five times (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003). He was a six-time MLS All-Star (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004) and was named the 2003 MLS Comeback Player of the Year. Armas earned 66 caps for the U.S. National Team and won two Concacaf Gold Cups (2002, 2005). He was named U.S. Soccer’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2000.
And after nearly three seasons in charge of the New York Red Bulls (with limited resources, which we’ll get to more shortly), the Bronx, New York native averaged 1.61 points per game as a head coach, good enough for seventh best all-time (min. 50 MLS games managed).
“He is a winner,” Manning reiterated on a Zoom call Thursday afternoon. “Chris Armas, as a player, as an assistant coach, as a college coach, and most recently as a head coach, is a winner. First and foremost, that was the most important ingredient for us in a head coach. We wanted a coach who was going to embrace our culture and enhance it, not someone who was going to break it down.”
While it’s true that his side’s average points per game took a dip while under Armas in each of his two-and-a-half seasons at the helm of Red Bull Arena...
The Golden Ticket
... it’s also worth noting that so did the quality of players at his disposal. In the two-and-a-half year span that Armas led the Red Bulls, he had to manage the departures of several key pieces, including Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo, Luis Robles, and Brandon Wright-Phillips.
The former New York Red Bulls head coach arrives in Toronto faced with a fresh opportunity that he’s never had previously in his brief coaching career: “I think if you ask a lot of GMs and coaches around the league, they’d love to have TFC’s roster,” Curtis said via Zoom on Thursday.
“The resources and support that we will provide to Chris will be different than his previous roles, which we know will be beneficial to his vision and our success,” echoed the TFC GM in a press release.
Over the past seven seasons, TFC have traditionally been one of, if not the highest, spending club in Major League Soccer (MLS). New York Red Bulls, meanwhile, in recent years have been near the bottom-five when it comes to spending. And despite having to navigate a tight budget, Armas still managed to find a way to field three playoff-calibre sides
In 2018 when he took over from Jesse Marsch midway through the year, he went on to win the Supporters’ Shield. In 2019, he made the playoffs even though NYRB were the third-lowest spending club in MLS that year. And when he was recently let go this past September, the budget-friendly Red Bulls were still in a playoff position.
Armas goes from essentially the bottom of the barrel (in terms of spending in MLS) to the top, and at the very least, it’s intriguing to think about what he can do now that he’s been provided with more tools to work with.
A vision that should appeal to fans
I’ll leave you with this: the gaffer’s vision, in his own words.
“I think the first thing to say is before any x’s and o’s, ... it’s important to know just how I see the game—and it’s with energy. It starts with energy and passion. If you watch an Alejandro Pozuelo or a Michael (Bradley), they play to win and I understand that. It becomes a way of working, a way of playing, it’s a way of living. It starts with the energy.
The supporters start to feel that. They can relate to that. In a way, again, without the soccer yet, it becomes an identity of that team (being) on the front foot. That team plays together. That team never gives in. And I truly believe that because of that energy, other teams feel it, and they wonder how can that team operate like that: ‘how many guys does that team have on the field,’ that type of thing.
So, the first part, there is an energy that I see to the game.
And then you think about how goals are scored, and understanding that so many goals come from transition, how can you create a game model, how can you create a philosophy that leads to that? So, then you start talking about with the ball, and so we try and start to play forward with some tempo—playing the game fast.
“... I do see the game in possession, making the game fast, playing vertical, and now of course, with this roster, with real intelligence in decision making and some pause at times. But thinking about the verticality also leads to counter-pressing, so you start developing this rhythm.”
“On the flip side, when you don’t have the ball, it’s all about for me taking time and space away and controlling space. The easy one for me is high-pressing, but I’ve learned from my time and evolved that teams are bypassing the high press. So how can you become really good at a mid-block? Or sitting a little bit deeper and controlling spaces?”
“And the last part of that, what I just talked about, quite honestly, means nothing unless there’s a team that sticks together, that runs for eachother, that’s willing to work ... and I know what that looks like. I’ve experienced it as a player. I’ve experienced it as a coach. I’ve seen the best coaches—I’ve played for them—I understand what that looks like. That’s an everyday thing, and it’s not an easy thing, but it’s a winning thing. It’s a mentality that I can’t wait to inject into the TFC team...”
From my standpoint, if there’s one thing that Toronto FC appeared to lack down the stretch, and perhaps this was a result of the year they endured, but the team appeared to be short of the aforementioned energy and passion.
Combine the work rate Armas demands with the quality of players that TFC possess, and if all goes well, it may just be the perfect recipe for success.
BONUS: Will the new TFC coach free the young guns?
I lied. I couldn’t put a bow on this Notebook without touching on the Young Guns.
Crucial to Toronto FC’s future is of course their up-and-coming talent, and it’s not a stretch to say that the Reds boast some of—if not the best—young guns in all of MLS when you consider the likes of 20 year old Ayo Akinola, 16 year old Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, and Ralph Priso and Jayden Nelson who are both 18, among others.
That’s why Armas’ experience and ability to work with younger players was appealing to the TFC front office.
“I think he’ll be excellent, especially given the investment that we have in our player development model, and helping to bring players along, especially some of those that got a taste of it in 2020,” said Curtis on Thursday. “So 2021 and beyond, we’re very excited about. I think it’s an opportunity when you do have some veteran players and you have some young players trying to make their way, I think that’s a real golden opportunity.”
“I have experience with young players, and it’s not just young players: it’s how to bring them along ... understanding that the young guys are hungry,” added Armas. “... The young players have to play. As long as their capable, in their right doses, they won’t let you down. In fact, I think in order to win and win consistently, you need the young guys on a roster.”
While Armas does add that veterans like Jonathan Osorio are crucial to playoff success, he isn’t one to immediately dismiss the impact that a less-experienced player can have.
“The young players bring energy. They bring a freshness into a meal room, into a team that I think is great,” said Armas. “Again, I have experience in that area, and when I really delved into the roster (which was almost a job in itself), understanding more about Ralph Priso and Jayden Nelson, some of the younger players, they’re exciting players—and they’re good. And they play with a freedom and excitement that, again, I think it’s important to find minutes for these young players and TFC has some good ones.”
As I mentioned in my previous TFC Notebook, perhaps the inevitable youth movement is closer than we all think.
So Chris Armas may not be the name you were hoping for, but there’s no changing the fact that, for better or for worse, he’s now one of our own.
Let’s treat him that way.
With that, I’ll leave you (for real this time) with a short quote from Ali Curtis:
“The supporters should be excited because (Chris Armas) brings it every single day.”
Looking forward to it, Coach. Welcome to Toronto.