In early July, the New York Red Bulls changed coaches in the midst of a trophy-chasing campaign, with Jesse Marsch moving across the Atlantic to take up a post with German sibling club RB Leipzig and assistant Chris Armas promoted into his place.
RBNY are known as a “system team,” and succession from within tends to point towards an established culture and way of doing things. Yet the move raised eyebrows just the same.
Replacing a charismatic leader with 2015 Supporters’ Shield and MLS Coach of the Year honors on his resume was never going to be a simple task. And losing a New York Derby matchup vs. NYCFC in his first game in charge was not exactly the ideal start for Armas. Even as he set about stacking up positive results at the same rate as his predecessor, Armas’ string of narrow wins somehow looked pedestrian next to Marsch’s habit of emphatic multi-goal victories.
It did not take long for doubts to surface about the new management, including on this very site.
- Once a Metro: “Are the Red Bulls treading water or adapting for the playoffs?”
- Steve Davis: “Not saying Armas can't/won't be strong in the job, just saying there's a lot that goes into coaching. Marsch was damn good.”
- Dave Martinez: “Armas has a lot to learn … Marsch never got his due – but that blueprint doesn’t work without him.”
- Matt Doyle: “Armas … seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the machine that Jesse Marsch created.”
Fast-forward a month or so, and not only are Armas’ Red Bulls reeling in points even faster than they did under Marsch, they’ve climbed into the top spot in the overall league standings and look primed to take mighty Atlanta United right to the wall in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
Armas offers an intriguing analogy to explain his refinements to the distinctive RBNY formula: Picture a new chef taking command of a successful restaurant.
“If you’re talking about coaching or cooking, it's the same ingredients,” the Bronx native told MLSsoccer.com last month at RBNY’s training ground in Whippany, New Jersey. “It’s just a little bit of a different sprinkle of this, sprinkle of that. Even if you try to make the same thing, doesn’t it come out a little bit differently?”
The Red Bulls have risen to the top of the league – and charted a course for their best season yet – while testing out new recipes: adding wrinkles to their high-pressing style, flashing subtle nuances in their buildup play and acclimating themselves to the tight margins and asphyxiating pressure of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
That last bit – getting over the postseason hump – is the final piece in the puzzle that constantly eluded them under both Marsch and a litany of past coaches. As longtime supporters of the club are quick to remember (and lament), New York carry a long history of playoff woe that dates all the way back to their original identity as the MetroStars.
They’ve reached just one MLS Cup in their history, losing the 2008 edition to Columbus. That bitter tradition – old-timers call it “Metro Playoff Failure” or MPF, a snarky reference to a ill-fated advertising campaign of yore – continued even as they have knocked on the door louder and more persistently than ever in recent seasons.
“I stepped into a great situation where the playoffs are on the horizon,” Armas said. “We’re not on zero points. So I’m not going to start preparing for the playoffs in a few months from now. It’s right away.
“Set pieces, throw-ins, the smallest of details – on a pick or an alertness or a recovery run or blocking the goalkeeper when he tries to get something going quickly. All the things that make differences … little things within the same philosophy.”
The scorelines may not be quite as imposing – Marsch, of course, will always be remembered fondly by the Red Bulls faithful for delivering that 7-0 drubbing of NYCFC at Yankee Stadium two years ago. But for a group that’s grown fiercely proud of their stingy defending (they’re just back of Seattle for fewest goals conceded in MLS - in two more games), that’s not so much a sign of weakness as the honing of a key skillset.
“Every game that we go into, our back four – our whole team, really – just says ‘shutout first,’” said All-Star center back Aaron Long, “because we know we’re going to get a goal. We rarely get shut out as a team, so if we can score one goal, just like we did last game, if we can get a shutout, we win games. So it’s been an 11-man emphasis, every game, every halftime, that’s always what we want.”
Skeptics may wish to note that some underlying data suggests that the product may actually be improving under the new boss (Tutul's entire thread is worth reading):
It's been widely discussed that the Red Bulls haven't been as good since Chris Armas has taken over and it's just growing pains on adding another club in the bag.— Tutul Rahman (@tutulismyname) August 29, 2018
The statistics show that Chris Armas's Red Bulls may already be better.
Things to note below. pic.twitter.com/YczaUanqo7
RBNY are eager to get their hands on the Shield, but the real prize, the one that keeps eluding and thus captivating them most, is MLS Cup.
“I think that’s exactly what we’re preparing for,” said Homegrown midfielder Sean Davis. “Luckily enough, we’ve had a really strong season, so we can test the waters a bit and continue to evolve in that way. I think you’ve seen that lately with our play, we do look a bit different and that’s because we’re experimenting and trying to grow into an absolutely complete team that can’t be stopped. So that’s the mindset every day, is to come in and do what Chris says, ‘Lift the trophy at the end of the year.’”
Tweaking an identity as distinct and calculated as RBNY’s inevitably carries risks. But for Armas & Co., it’s seen as a necessary -- and urgent -- priority given the goals they’re pursuing.
“Come playoff time, we’re going to have to adjust and adapt on who we play, and the stakes are obviously higher. So it’s best to have a complete arsenal under your belt,” said Davis.
“We’ve just tried to continue to evolve our team and continued to try to improve our weaknesses. We’re a team that can always create chaos without the ball, and we can press teams and win the ball higher up the field and go quickly to goal. And I think now with Chris we’re just continuing to try to build upon our buildout play and creating more dangerous chances through possession. We’ve gotten really good against the ball, and now we’re continuing to try to improve with the ball.”
*Additional reporting contributed by Sam Stejskal.