High-profile soccer succession plans have had a habit of faltering in recent years.
Eight years and four head coaches since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United has yet to find its way back to the Premier League winner’s circle, while over at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane was summoned back to the club’s hot seat in 2019, just 10 months and two failed replacements after voluntarily vacating it.
Now it is the turn of New Yorker Chris Armas to follow in the footsteps of a club coaching legend, after Greg Vanney, the most successful head coach in Toronto FC’s 14-year history, walked away to take the Los Angeles Galaxy job last month.
However, while there will naturally be external pressure to live up to the legacy established by the only man in Major League Soccer history to coach a team to a single-season trophy treble, the whole concept of pressure is brought home to Armas on an almost-daily basis.
“My wife is an [operating room] nurse and when she comes home [from work] I can talk about the pressure,” he says. “You know, pressure of what she has seen in this last year.”
His wife, Justine, has been battling COVID-19 on the front lines at a hospital in New York, where Armas worked as head coach of the New York Red Bulls until last September, when the two sides agreed to part ways. The 48-year-old was no stranger to silverware during his time with the Red Bulls, taking over from Jesse Marsch midway through the 2018 season and leading the club to the Supporters’ Shield after its first-place regular-season finish.
Armas enjoyed filling the trophy cabinet as a player, too, winning the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and four U.S. Open Cups during a career split between the Galaxy and Chicago Fire.
It’s a habit he plans to replicate north of the border.
“I’m going to work hard, deliver excellence, trophies,” he says. “I can guarantee that I will coach a team that is clear, they’re clear with roles, we are together. We don’t cut corners, and we have a style of play that is on the front foot, and we go after every game.”
What is less clear is where Toronto FC will play, with the Canadian Championship final against Forge FC from the Canadian Premier League set to take place soon, although the exact date has yet to be nailed down. TFC president Bill Manning confirmed that although the hope is to play at Toronto’s BMO Field, contingency plans are being prepared, which include returning to East Hartford, Conn., where TFC played the second half its MLS season and playoffs last year.
Armas’s family, which includes his two sons, will remain in New York while he waits to see where his new squad will play its 2021 season, but it’s clear he’s very much a family first kind of guy. However, that family connection extends to his players as well, especially with his captain, Michael Bradley.
Armas played for Michael’s father, Bob Bradley, when the two helped Chicago win an MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in 1998, and TFC’s new coach wasted little time reaching out to the younger Bradley.
The TFC captain says he has an “incredible relationship” with Armas stretching back to that season, when he was just a 10-year-old hanging around the team in the shadow of his dad. With Armas and Bradley both playing defensive midfield, it’s clear there’s mutual respect between the pair.
“He set the standard every single day for what it meant to work, for what it meant to compete and I think that even in the conversations that he and I have had over this last stretch, he has a really good grip on our team,” Bradley told the TFC website.
“He knows us inside out, certainly now having coached against us, I think he has a really good feel for the group.”
That bond between head coach and team captain should help the new regime hit the ground running. And it’s clear there will be a lot of running, at least in short spurts.
As he employed during his tenure with the Red Bulls, Armas is a devotee of “gegenpressing,” which is German for counterpressing, the up-tempo tactic of pressing high up the pitch without possession, a system most notably used by Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool and Bayern Munich. It’s designed to force the opposition into mistakes when they have the ball, and to elicit turnovers closer to their goal.
“It’s pressing, it’s compressing spaces, all with the idea of winning the ball and attacking again,” he says. “So I’d say it’s about making the game fast, and it’s about attacking football.”
With a lesser squad than the one TFC currently has – and with the team still keen to bring in another designated player to complement the attacking talents of Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore – Armas made it work for the most part in New York. His Red Bulls teams averaged 1.61 points a game, good for the seventh-best mark in MLS history for any head coach with at least 50 games in charge.
Vanney, who was the longest-tenured coach in TFC history, managed an average of 1.52 PPG in the regular season, although he is more likely to be remembered for the .647 winning percentage in the playoffs and the hat trick of MLS Cup appearances that resulted.
But even though he is following in his former teammate’s footsteps, having played with Vanney for both the Galaxy and the U.S. national team, Armas says his challenge is to maintain the standard of excellence that Vanney set.
“It’s an honour, again, and a privilege to follow their footsteps,” he says. “And to add to it, just to add to it. I am coming here to add to the excellence and to keep it at a high level.”