HANOVER, N.J. — It’s become almost an annual rite of passage around here. The leaves change, the weather gets colder, the New York Red Bulls suffer playoff futility.
It happened when the club was called the MetroStars and it continues today. Every November the #That’sSoMetro hashtag trends on Twitter and the wait for MLS Cup glory goes on for another year.
Chris Armas is the latest coach tasked with trying to lead this MLS original to their first Cup. They enter the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs as underdogs, the No. 6 seed in the East having to take on No. 3 Philadelphia in Round One Sunday (3 pm ET | FS1, TSN4, TVAS2, Fox Deportes) at Talen Energy Stadium.
In the new playoff format, where every playoff game is a knockout game, there’s no room for error. A tactical slip-up, an error in the starting XI and the season could come crashing down after 90 minutes.
If success, and failure, is ultimately decided in the postseason, Armas will likely be judged as a head coach after 90 minutes Sunday.
Is he the right man for the job? It’s a question the club’s most loyal supporters weighed in on, loudly, in the final moments of a 2-0 home loss to the Colorado Rapids Aug. 31 when chants of “Fire Armas” rose from the South Ward and echoed throughout Red Bull Arena.
“To the Red Bull fans and supporters, they’ve been with us. And I know that there has to be disappointment, because they want what we want and we want what they want and when you don't have it, yeah, it comes out with frustration and being critical,” Armas said after training Wednesday. “I understand it. And if I were one of them I'd understand that that's part of it. On the outside people will judge and be critical when you're not the last team standing.”
Fans rushing to judgement and reacting emotionally in the moment is a time-honored tradition in sports. It’s why sports talk radio is so popular and why hashtags, like #ThatsSoMetro trend. Fans have opinions, on who the best coach would be, who the next Designated Player should be, who the next Homegrown player should be.
That’s unlikely to change.
But Armas is second all-time among Red Bulls head coaches with a .587 winning percentage, behind only Jesse Marsch (.597), whom he took over for midway through last season. That’s better than Bruce Arena, better than Bob Bradley, better than Mike Petke and Hans Backe and better than Juan Carlos Osorio, who led the team to their lone MLS Cup appearance in 2008.
“I took over last year, I think we were in third or fourth place,” Armas said. “We were in first place one time the whole year. We finished in first place. We win a Supporters’ Shield on my watch.”
This year there has been adversity, with lengthy injuries to defensive standouts Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence and the club’s all-time leading scorer, Bradley Wright-Phillips. Add to that the tactical adjustment with many opponents opting for more direct play and looking to be disruptive.
“We’re still standing,” Armas said, almost defiantly. “We haven't gone anywhere. We're still standing where you can see teams maybe not make the cut. I think we've been tested in many ways and it has prepared us to go after this the best we can.”
The Red Bulls are not the favorites, not like they were last year when they lost to Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference Final after winning a third Supporters’ Shield in six years.
They dropped 23 points after setting a then-MLS record for points in a season a year ago and went from the top spot in the league to No. 6 in the East. It’s not what Armas would call a place of comfort.
“I'm not happy not being first. I'm comfortable being number one,” he said. “That’s where I've operated and hovered in my career as a player and as a coach so I can assure you that I turn over every stone every single day, more than once, trying to find answers and solutions to get us to where we haven't gone before.”
And yes, if they don’t raise the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Nov. 10, it will be another bitter offseason for the Red Bulls’ most hardened fans. And surely, there will be more calls for change.
Armas will be part of a list of coaches who failed to deliver the Cup. He’s quick to point out it’s a list that includes Arena and Bradley, who are considered to be two of the best American managers ever.
“No one — Bruce, Bob Bradley — they’ve all come through, we’re all trying to get that trophy for this club. These are some of the greatest. Jesse? Yes. Haven’t done it,” Armas said. “C’mon, I’m trying here and we’re making progress and we’ve been pushed and we’re going after it this year. We’re going after it big time.”