HANOVER, N.J. – New York Red Bulls center back Armando is well aware that he's under the microscope in MLS for his physical style of play. But that doesn't mean he intends to change much, if anything at all, about the way he goes about his business on the field.
The Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo will meet at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday night (7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE), and Armando is all but assured of a starting role with fellow veteran central defender Ibrahim Sekagya out through a suspension earned via a late red card in last week’s 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union.
That means that Armando – who is still adjusting to MLS after spending most of his career in his native Spain – will have another opportunity to stake his claim to the fluid starting center-back spot next to stalwart Jámison Olave.
But the match also represents a chance for Armando to dispel the fast-spreading notion that his game is predicated on being aggressive, perhaps even dirty in the eyes of some, and demonstrate the type of quality passing and skills that he consistently shows in training.
The veteran defender surely wants to earn more playing time after moving in and out of the lineup in his first season in MLS. Modifying his game? Not so much.
“You think at 29 years old that I am I’m going to change the way that I play, and what got me to where I am today in my career?” Armando told MLSsoccer.com on Monday. “I don’t think I’m doing anything that’s illegal. If [the league officials] think so, they have to penalize me and that’s it. What am I going to do about it?”
It may seem that Armando is being stubborn with that stance, but the reality is that it is difficult for players, especially veterans, to change the way they’ve played the game their entire lives. Red Bulls midfielder Péguy Luyindula ecently said that it would be “just impossible” to ask someone to try and modify their game, something with which the rugged Armando appears to agree.
“I’m going to continue playing how I always have,” said the Spaniard. “The same way I go in hard, other players go in hard on me. In Vancouver, [Darren Mattocks] kicked me on one play and almost broke my knee and there were no sanctions on that occasion.
“It’s soccer. For me, it’s just part of soccer. I don’t go into challenges with the intent to hurt anyone, but I go hard to the ball. What else can I say?”
Armando added that he will not think twice about the possibility of being retroactively suspended, as he was in March, when he goes into challenges. But head coach Mike Petke said Monday that precautions are being taken to try and keep his central defender from being suspended again.
Petke initially said this season that he had no intentions of asking Armando to change his game, but the second-year head coach has sung a different tune since he learned in New York’s match vs. Chivas USA on March 30 that a more watchful eye was being placed on Armando.
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“It’s seven games in. He’s had a good look at the referees and how things are run in this league,” said Petke. “I’ve got to expect that he’s intelligent enough and mature enough and professional enough to figure out perhaps he can’t get away with certain things here that he’s gotten away with in other places. I don’t want to ask him to change, but yeah, [he needs] to be a bit more careful.
“The one thing that we talked a lot about was that if he can’t get to a ball, no need to try and get to the ball through another player. Just hold him up and stay on your feet. But at the end of the day, we know that the league has targeted him because we’ve been told by the fourth official [in the Chivas USA game]. It’s about letting him just keep on his feet, stand up and play old-school defense.”
Petke is otherwise happy with what he’s seen from Armando in the opening weeks of the season. Now it’s just about taming Armando in order to keep him on the field.
“I like a lot of things that he’s done,” said Petke. “He’s also used to a system and a style in Spain that’s [run] a bit differently when you talk about a flat back four. He needs to adjust a little bit to the way we want him to play, but he’s done that and I expect big things out of him.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.