The New York Red Bulls parted ways with head coach Chris Armas on Friday after scoring just seven goals in their first nine games, a run punctuated by Wednesday night's dispiriting 1-0 home loss to a short-handed D.C. United side.
New sporting director Kevin Thelwell's statement was boilerplate, to the point and, ultimately, very understandable:
“On behalf of the organization, I’d like to thank Chris for his hard work and dedication to the club,” Thelwell said. “In this business, we have to make difficult decisions based on performances and, fundamentally, results. At this time, it’s my decision that we must go in a different direction in order to meet the ambitions we have for our football club."
First things first: Armas ascended from assistant to the head coaching role of the Red Bulls in the middle of the 2018 regular season — what is still the best and most entertaining season in MLS history. He slid up the bench in the midst of the best and most exciting Supporters' Shield race in MLS history, as RBNY and Atlanta United, two of the all-time greatest teams in MLS history, treated every damn game like it was do-or-die.
They weren't just going after the Shield. They were out there, week after week, making a statement about how they were going at and going after each other. Every outing was a playoff game. Every suffocating win was a statement of intent.
And the biggest statement was finally made during the final regular-season meeting between the two teams, at the end of September, when Armas's Red Bulls were hosting an Atlanta side that had won five-of-six, had lost just once in two months, and had looked very much like a team destined to break the single-season points record Toronto FC had just set the year before.
That statement was "You will never, ever beat us when we press you." The Red Bulls strangled Atlanta to death on that day, a 2-0 win that felt like 4- or 5-0 on the balance of play. Atlanta were helpless to do anything about it. They had been dominated so thoroughly that Tata Martino effectively switched his scheme, becoming first and foremost a counterattacking team for the rest of the year (which turned out to be a wise choice).
That was New York's second win on the trot. They had three more regular-season games afterward, and they won all of them, so at the end of the regular season it was the Red Bulls hoisting their third Shield in five years, and it was the Red Bulls who had broken Toronto's year-old points record. It was the Red Bulls who were the best team during the best season in league history.
And here's the thing: they actually had a better record in the second half of the year under Armas (12-3-3) than they'd had in the first half under Jesse Marsch (10-4-2). Even though you could see they weren't pressing quite as hard or as often under Armas, they were getting better results -- and they needed every single one of them. They earned every bit of that Shield and that points record (however temporary). Armas was a massive part of that, and will always deserve credit for it.
Things really have been all downhill from there, though. RBNY and Atlanta met again in 2018, this time in the playoffs, and this time Armas had his team... sit back and not press? Invite Atlanta to get comfortable on the ball and get forward? What? Why?
The Five Stripes won 3-0, effectively ending the tie in leg 1. That remains, to date, the only time RBNY haven't really pressed Atlanta. That remains, to date, the only time Atlanta have ever beaten RBNY.
What followed was a 2019 that was both weirdly nondescript and entirely worrying. The biggest worry of all was that all-time great 2018 defense, from left-to-right, played at nowhere near that level in 2019. The team would still press ruthlessly and effectively for 20 to 30 minutes per game, but for the rest of it they were a mid- or low-block team, one that struggled to prevent high-quality chances and one that struggled badly at holding onto leads. The Red Bulls dropped 22 points from leading positions in 2019, the fifth-most in MLS.
That carried over into the playoffs. They'd qualified by finishing sixth in the East, putting them on the road at Philly. RBNY led 2-0 and 3-1 in that game. Philly were falling apart, making mistake after mistake. The Red Bulls still lost 4-3.
There's been no indication thus far in 2020 that things were improving, either on an overall level or individually. Yes, players like Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Michael Murillo are gone, but none of those guys had been recognized as stars before they got to Harrison. The Red Bull way had been to take guys like that and turn them into stars, and in two years under Armas, it hadn't worked. To be fair, the cupboard was not filled for him — the RBNY academy has not developed another Adams or Matt Miazga, or even a Sean Davis or Alex Muyl, and they have not signed another BWP. Ownership and the front office are as culpable as Armas, if not more.
Armas's press conference after loss to D.C.
But Kaku was the team's record signing and arguably a Best XI-caliber performer in 2018, but is now often being used at left midfield or off the bench. That's on Armas. Omir Fernandez, a livewire academy attacker, has been used sparingly over his year-and-a-half despite effective two-way play, which is also on Armas. Young Cristian Casseres Jr. seems to be the same player he was at 20 that he was at age 18 upon his arrival, while veterans like Davis, Aaron Long and Tim Parker are shadows of the players they were in 2017 and 2018.
While it is true that Armas hadn't been given an Atlanta or LAFC or Toronto-sized budget to work with, he hadn't been given nothing, either. What is true is that there has been almost uniform regression in terms of individual performance across the entire roster.
And so with a new sporting director in town and 71 games worth of data on Armas, the writing was on the wall and then the end finally came. The Red Bulls Way had stopped working, and it's not the Red Bulls' way to sit idly and watch things deteriorate.
The change has been made. It's on Kevin Thelwell to make sure that change was for the best.