Season 10: Armas made his mark
legendary midfielders at that, an accomplishment that will be next to impossible to duplicate.
In 1998, the quartet of Marco Etcheverry, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Preki and Carlos Valderrama totaled 35 goals and 60 assists in 100 games.
When they went up against Armas, there was a precipitous drop in their production. They combined for only two goals and four assists in 15 games against the Fire, including the playoffs.
Armas was way too modest to take full credit. He praised then Fire coach Bob Bradley and his defensive midfielder partner-in-crime, Jesse Marsch.
"Before those games, Bob Bradley -- and he still does it today -- he looks at key players on other teams and guys that can hurt you and typically can do the damage," Armas said. "Back then, a lot of the teams depended on a few guys. Things have changed a bit now because so many guys can hurt you. So, if you could take Etcheverry out of D.C.'s attack, you had a pretty good chance of winning."
Armas's goal was to make life difficult for the playmaker.
"Each one of them had something extremely special they brought to the table," he said. "The frustrating thing is over 90 minutes they're making plays. You try to make it uneventful as much as possible. You try to make them play sideways and backwards.
"I always took pride. The other guys realized how much respect I had for them. They brought out the best in me."
Armas's philosophy? Keep it tight.
"You watch these players around the world, like (Zinedine) Zidane," he said. "You look at the space they get and the respect they get. I don't agree with it. I always thought you have to make the guy earn it, even if they beat you. I don't think you should let a guy like that with time and with space. You have to try to give yourself more time and give them less time. In any sport, time is the thing. If you give them time, they can take out guys, they can hurt you.
"In reality, who wants someone in your face all the time, someone is trying to disrupt you? Not in a dirty way. You do take some professional fouls. You take a foul here and there to let a guy know that its part of the game. The contact, in your face, being Tight, that's always a quality that I tried."
Armas, then 25, faced Cienfuegos (13 goals, 16 assists that year) the most in 1998 -- six times, including four playoff matches, limiting his former teammate to a goal and assist. Armas had played with the former El Salvadoran international for two seasons before he was traded from the Los Angeles Galaxy to Chicago.
"It was the first year I was playing against my old team," he said. "So, if there is an extra you can put out there, you do because it's your old team. Going in there and beating them to get to the MLS Cup that year ... maybe there is hidden concentration, energy.
"He can run for 90 minutes. He never stops moving. He finds himself in tight spots and can get out of tight spots. He's very mobile. So he's a guy you end up having to watch all over the field."
Preki, the only one of the four who is still playing in MLS, finished with 10 goals and 13 assists for the Kansas City Wizards, but could only muster one assist in three encounters with Armas.
"He likes to stay in the attacking end," Armas said. "Around the goal can hurt you in so many different ways. From 50 yards out he is dangerous, From 20 yards out he was dangerous. He can pass the ball over distance. He can drop balls on a dime. You really can't give him that much space. He likes to hide himself in the attacking end where he can make a pass or come at you.
"He'll lead you one way to his right, chop it to his left, chop it back to his right. He gets you off-balance a lot. He shoots the ball with accuracy that if you are not on him real tight and double-teaming him, he hurts you."
Valderrama, the former captain of the Colombian national team, was a master passer. Yet Armas managed to hold the Miami Fusion midfielder pointless in two matches. Against the rest of the league, Valderrama collected two goals and 12 assists.
"He breaks down defenses," Armas said. "He's the kind of guy who kind lulls you into thinking, 'He's not that tough.' He likes to stand around the center circle. Even if its 10 back passes, 10 side passes, just to get one that he can thread one through to Lassiter makes him so dangerous.
"You come in at halftime sometimes, you're not even spent. You feel like you haven't done that much running. Still, the guy touched the ball so many times, still involved in the game, and really hasn't left his mark yet. I remember one game when he didn't do anything for pretty much the first half. Right at the end of the half he puts a through ball for a breakaway. They didn't score. But I was like, 'Wow, it was one mishap or lack of concentration on my part, that is where he hurts you.' He has such good vision, good in tight spots, very strong on the ball, deceivingly good strong upper body."
The 5-foot-7, 150-lb. Armas had several classic confrontations with Etcheverry through the years. Armas stifled the United midfielder at MLS Cup '96 before Etcheverry found room and set up three goals via corner or free kicks, including the game-winner in extra time.
In 1998 it was a different story as the Bolivian international mustered a goal and two assists in three matches. Armas shut out Etcheverry in Chicago's 2-0 triumph in MLS Cup '98.
"Me and him have had some really good battles," Armas said. "It started out that we couldn't stand each other. You couldn't call it a relationship but I guess it was somewhat of one. It was respect. He knew I was trying to do my job. I'm trying to be on him tight, kick him while I can, follow him everywhere, try to disrupt him, not let him get into the flow. He probably didn't like to see me. He was a fierce competitor.
"Back when he was doing his thing, he was a complete player. He had some passing ability of Valderrama. With that left foot, on a free kick, on a corner kick, over distance, he was very accurate and dangerous. He had great vision. There wasn't a ball or pass out there he thought he couldn't take. You had to be on him that way. Around the goal, he was very dangerous because he can shoot and he can hurt you."
As it turned out, Armas never had to face another top midfielder -- Fire teammate Peter Nowak -- in a competitive match, although he had to go head-to-head with him every practice.
"I think he's the best player who's played in this league," he said. "When you talk about a winner, a guy under pressure in the heat of the moment that can perform and gets that one chance to score for the team, he's always been there. He broke down defenses by running at you. He knew exactly how to hurt you. He had clear ideas. He never forgot the objective. Sometimes you see teams pass the ball, but never go anywhere. He always knew where the ball should go. He was always flawless in his decision making, always made the right choices, which is not easy."
Playing against Nowak was no walk in the park.
"It just brings out the best in you," Armas said. "When you're playing the short games, 7 v 7, you try to find ways to win and he tries to do his thing. If you get too close and start kicking him, he gives you a look like, 'Hey, what are you thinking? Don't kick me.' He's very competitive. He would look at me almost, 'Go mark somebody else. Get out of here. What are you doing?'"
Today, Armas doesn't mark up with one player as often as he once did.
"Our league has grown to the point where teams are not just surviving on one guy who you just built it around and one player that you're going to cover," he said. "It's a physical league. It's seeing more two-way players."
He cited one player who is enjoying a breakout season -- New England's Clint Dempsey, who has five goals, four assists in MLS Season 10.
"Right now, New England, they're very versatile in the midfield," Armas said. "Dempsey finds himself in good seams, in good spots. They give a little bit of the run of play up, but they wait for the counterattack. They have guys like (Steve) Ralston, Demspey, Shalrie (Joseph) starting the attack and obviously (Pat) Noonan and (Taylor) Twellman. They do not need 10 chances for a goal. Running out of midfield, (Dempsey) gets himself in great spots. He is someone we haven't done great against."
Armas and Marsch have had intriguing battles with the MetroStars' Amado Guevara, last season's MVP.
"We really try to make it hard for him," Armas said. "I really appreciate the way he plays. He's very smooth on the ball. He's one of those guys who does a lot of things on the field. He defends. He will put out the work. He can shoot from distance, can pass very well. He's very shifty. He's very creative. He looks for the little passes. He looks to give it and get it back. He's very active. He's difficult to follow."
Believe it or not, Armas has never marked L.A.'s Landon Donovan.
"It's better he stays up high," he said. "I don't want to have to chase him around for 90 minutes. He brings a lot to the table. He's a handful."
So which international midfielder does Armas admire? Manchester United defensive midfielder Roy Keane, followed by Arsenal's Patrick Vieria and Chelsea's Claude Makelele.
"Bob Bradley would always credit me with being simple," Armas said. "It's not easy to be simple and efficient. Roy Keane is someone who does much more than that but he really plays that position well. He's a good passer, a simple passer. He's vocal. He leads by example. He has a composed side, an aggressive side. He really holds down the midfield of the field and sometimes dominates games on his own."
As for today's players, Armas feels Colorado's Pablo Mastroeni and New England's Joseph are the top defensive midfielders, followed by FC Dallas's Richard Mulrooney and Kansas City's Diego Gutierrez and Kerry Zavagnin.
"Pablo is more of a guy who really holds down the middle," he said. "Technically really good, a presence, holds balls. He'll do anything to win the ball. He'll tackle, he'll slide. He'll kill himself to win a ball. He's a guy who you will always take on your team."
"Tactically, he does very well holding the middle of the field," Armas said. "He isn't caught out of position that much. He's good with the ball. He's strong on the ball. He knows playing simple. He does pose a threat going forward. On all cylinders, he does a pretty good job. He's an honest player. He brings a lot of energy to the field. He is a guy who disrupts things, winning balls. He's a guy who you will take on your team any time."
A lot of players and coaches have said the same thing about Chris Armas.
Michael Lewis writes about soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has covered MLS since its inception, including the league's unveiling at the 1994 World Cup draw in Las Vegas. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.