Little more than a month after the job officially became vacant, Toronto FC have their next head coach in place with the hiring of Chris Armas.
The decision-makers leading the club led a global and tireless search to find candidates, evaluate interested parties and form a shortlist. From there, as the club entered final rounds of interviews, there was a meeting that included GM Ali Curtis and Armas, it was one Curtis referenced a few times at Armas' virtual introductory press conference Thursday.
They went into these meetings and interviews with plenty of familiarity. Armas was an assistant coach at the New York Red Bulls while Curtis was the GM and their playing careers overlapped in MLS, though never as teammates. While they knew each other quite well, Curtis was blown away by one particular meeting, learning more about Armas and observing how he's evolved over the years.
Curtis knew he found Toronto's next head coach.
“This was a vast, exhaustive and methodical search," Curtis said. "International, domestic. Varying level of experience. Big clubs, small clubs, no club. A lot of people were interested in the role. We interviewed multiple different candidates, lots of research. Comprehensive analysis, reference checks. We really did a thorough job in ensuring we found the right candidate. Chris was the top of the charts.”
Toronto will be Armas' second senior head coaching job after a glittering playing career, which included an MLS Cup victory, one Supporters' Shield and four US Open Cups while five times being named to MLS Best XI. He won two Gold Cups with the United States. With the Red Bulls, Armas was an assistant on the 2015 Supporters' Shield winning team then took over midseason as head coach in 2018 and guided the team to the Supporters' Shield.
“I’ve known Chris a long time, he is a winner," club president Bill Manning said. "First and foremost, that was the most important ingredient for us.”
Now with Armas in charge, the club's post-Vanney era is firmly coming into focus. He will put his spin on the club's style and hope to add to the trophy cabinet. His coaching debut is likely to come in the Canadian Championship final.
Armas on tactics: "An injection of intensity"
With the Red Bulls, Armas was known for leading the club's high-pressing ethos. He'll be taking similar theories with him to Toronto.
“Before any Xs and Os, it’s important to know how I see the game," Armas said. "It starts with energy and passion. If you watch Alejandro Pozuelo or Michael Bradley, they play to win. I understand that. It’s a way of working, playing and living.”
Armas went on to explain that over the years he has tweaked his game model to try to maximize transition, as the modern game has placed more and more emphasis on valuable transition opportunities. His Red Bull teams still pressed, but not quite as maniacally as they did under Marsch. He looked for secondary ways to win as teams began bypassing their press. He said Toronto can play out of a midblock at times, as it's more about controlling space and making things difficult for the opponent.
Simply put, Armas wants to raise the intensity.
“I do think the team could use an injection of intensity, not that the team didn’t play hard," Armas said. "But with the ball it will translate to more verticality, not just possession-based, but always playing between the lines and overloads. Toronto played fast, but [I want to] play with even more tempo.”
“I’m really excited about the tactics he’s going to bring, to elevate the style of play to help achieve our goals," Curtis added.
Toronto FC simultaneously returned the majority of the club's core from 2020 while opening a bit of key roster flexibility. Pozuelo, the reigning MLS MVP, returns to lead the squad while Jozy Altidore, Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Omar Gonzalez and others are all set to continue key roles under Armas.
“I think if you asked a lot of GMs and coaches around the league, they’d love to have TFC’s roster," Curtis said. "The roster is balanced but we’ll for sure make a few changes before the season begins.”
“Where do I even begin with what I like on this roster?” Armas added gleefully when asked what he was looking forward to with the current TFC squad.
Toronto have an open Designated Player spot to accentuate and enhance the already strong squad, which finished just short of a Supporters' Shield in 2020 despite playing much of their schedule away from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic border restrictions between Canada and the United States.
The coaching search was Toronto's chief priority, but they still advanced their DP search.
“We’ve been in talks with some of our targets and we’re advancing with those talks," Curtis said. "Like a lot of signings, it’s a process. Until you have a deal done or something signed, you have to continue on with that process. We’ve been aggressive in making sure we find the right player, the right fit.”
They will add a few other players in addition to a new DP and could still bring back a familiar face.
Pablo Piatti, signed ahead of 2020 as a DP, saw his contract option declined at the end of the year but player and club expressed interest in potentially continuing that relationship on a reduced contract. There hasn't been a ton of progress on that front but both sides remain in contact.
“I’m still in touch with Pablo’s representation," Curtis said. "With Greg [Vanney’s] departure, we felt it was best to bring aboard a head coach then really focus on a new Designated Player. There’s always been the potential to bring Pablo back, but not as a DP. So the primary focus was to advance and make progress on the head coaching search. Still in conversations with Pablo and his representation, as the days go by Chris and I will go over every player possible."