Despite being in his first full season as the New York Red Bulls’ head coach, Chris Armas has entered a select group within the New York City sports world.
Following Jonathan Lewis’ second goal last Saturday in the 87th minute for the Colorado Rapids, effectively sealing the win, 2-0, for his struggling team, the members of the South Ward supporter’s section who did not head for the exits began to chant “Fire Armas” and “Ar-Mas Out.”
He joins an illustrious company of former Big Apple coaches from other major sports.
New York Giants head coach Allie Sherman was with the NFL team for eight seasons between 1961-68 and helped coach the organization to three straight NFL Championship games. But in the final stretch of his tenure, he was serenaded with chants of “Goodbye Allie,” in the tune of “Goodnight Ladies,” as the team’s defense and record crumbled. Sherman was only the first of what would become a select few.
Knicks fans have made it a habit of finding ways to chant about firing people, most famous with Isiah Thomas in his two year tenure as head coach in the late 2000s and more recently with Derek Fisher back in 2015. For Jets fans there was “Joe Must Go” in reference to Joe Walton’s tenure during the 80s and the New York Rangers had Phil Esposito during the mid-1980s and “Fire Es-po.”
There was even someone whose head coach tenure had been just as short as Armas’ by the time the chants began. The two seasons that Ray Handley coached with the Giants in the early 90s are best remembered by the “Ray must go” chants in the tune of the tomahawk chop chant made famous by the Atlanta Braves. Well, that and the fact he was the guy who had to try and follow up the legendary Bill Parcells on the sideline.
The Red Bulls may not have a shiny league trophy like the rest of these teams but this almost makes it feel like they’ve really made it in this area.
To his credit, Armas told the media after Saturday’s loss that he took the blame, needed to take a look at what he was doing, and that the fans had every right to be upset even though he claims to have not heard the chant.
“(The fans) are not happy, they shouldn’t be,” Armas told media on Saturday night. “So, who do you take it out on? They don’t take it out on each other, they love the players, so they blame the person in charge. So it’s fair. Is that the best thing for the players and the coaches to hear? That doesn’t help but they’re frustrated (and) that comes with it. They support us, they come, and they’re entitled to be frustrated and voice that opinion. It won’t change the way we’re working but yeah it’s part of it.”
When looking at his team’s performance it isn’t shocking to see why fans are upset.
Despite currently being in playoff contention and sitting in the middle of the standings, the season has been a roller coaster that included a modern franchise record for consecutive losses, an early exit from the U.S. Open Cup, stretches that have seen the team beat powerful sides only to under-perform against lesser ones, and more.
This all came after last season when Armas took the role of head coach mid-year after former head coach Jesse Marsch, who holds the record for most wins in club history, left to take a coaching job in Europe with one of Red Bulls other teams. RBNY finished the 2018 season as Supporters’ Shield winners, clinching it on the final day of the season, and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But to many that feels like a lifetime ago. Just looking at last weekend’s roster there were obvious worries. The team’s defense has not been playing well as U.S. Men’s National team star Aaron Long and recent Red Bulls II call up Rece Buckmaster have struggled as of late while off-season acquisition Amro Tarek sat unused. One of the team’s better midfield duos, Cristian Cásseres Jr. and Alex Muyl, were left on the bench while the young Omir Fernandez was subbed in.
One of the most damning moments came just after an hour had been played when Josh Sims, in his first start after being loaned recently from Southampton, was subbed off after his three shots and set-ups were some of the best offense the team had during the game. He was subbed for Fernandez as well, who hasn’t scored since June 1 and has been getting inconsistent playing time.
Team captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles knows that fans are going to voice their frustrations and that those who buy a ticket are allowed to chant that, but from his own experience seeing Armas over the past season and a half he believes there needs to be a period of adjustment.
“I’m a little surprised,” Robles told media after the game. “At the end of the day the fans can say what they want. I feel that Chris has grown leaps and bounds as a coach this season, and this is really is his first season. So there has to be some sort of grace when it comes to his development as a coach at this level.”
While the man on the sidelines hears the heckling, the players on the pitch are not pulling in the results to shut down any sort of criticism. The Major League Soccer season is winding down and the Red Bulls feel like a team still in the early weeks of 2019.
The team’s most recent loss to the bottom table Rapids last Saturday is it’s second-in-a-row, the second time it’s done so this season. The record this season sits at 12-12-5 (41 pts) with New York now sitting at fifth place in the Eastern Conference. While two of the Bull’s rivals, New York City FC and Atlanta United, along with the Philadelphia Union, have broken away from the pact to challenge for the top playoff seed, which includes a bye into the second round, the club is now fighting to remain in playoff contention with four to five teams all around them in terms of points and within striking distance.
A win or draw would have kept the team at the top of the secondary pack, including Wayne Rooney’s DC United, the New England Revolution, Toronto FC, and the still alive but currently outside the playoff picture Montreal Impact. But with the loss, DC moves ahead into fourth while the next two northeastern contenders are within one game of overtaking.
Looking at the roster one name has been a continued source of worry: the team’s all-time leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips. The striker missed eight games in the middle of the season due to a groin injury and his progress in coming back to regular play has been tedious. He’s been used as a substitute since late June and only started his first game last week on the road against New York City FC.
Even before this the signs of BWP’s age catching up with him were becoming more noticeable. Before going down he started six of the team’s seven first games and only scored a single goal, an add-on in the 4-1 win over then-struggling San Jose, and notched one assist. Since returning he’s done the same, scoring the late-game equalizer against Atlanta United on the road and another assist.
He’s currently on pace to record his worst season with the club since joining in 2013. That year he played in nine games and scored two goals across all competitions and while he’s matched that goal total he’s already played 13 games when combining the MLS season and Champions League.
In the press conference following the loss at NYCFC, Armas was asked about Wright-Phillips going forward and how he might be used. After taking a moment to think, his response boiled down to his future not being up for discussion and that his resume speaks for itself.
“Bradley Wright-Phillips? Yeah we’ve gotten lots of minutes out of him even this week,” Armas said. “That’s a plus. He’s a club legend at the New York Red Bulls. He’s arguably the greatest goal scorer in the history of this league, per shots takes, per games played. He’s the best if not in the discussion. We don’t talk about players’ future now when we’re in the (playoff) hunt. We’re most focused on Brad getting healthy… The goals will come.”
After this weekend’s loss to Colorado, in which Brad was kept on the full 90 minutes and took four shots (one on target), Armas reiterated the former Premier League star’s accomplishments, his team roles, and also mentioned that the rest of the squad needs to set him up better to score.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next week, how he’s going to perform, does he score,” Armas said. “Brad’s a leader of this team and he’s been a goal scorer for this team for a long time. He (can) still score goals, we know that. We have to put him in some good spots, we have to be better with the ball in that part of the field, make better decisions.”
The issue is not worrying about BWP coming back after 2019, though that is a big question once the season is over, it’s where he fits in right now. There are five games left in the season and Armas keeps moving people with few players on the roster consistently starting in the same place. This isn’t about Wright-Phillips legacy, it is about his tole as either a starter who can go the full 90, a late-game sub who can pick-up and lead in a short time, or if he needs to be stepped around for the group to succeed.
One could argue this is Armas and the coaching staff trying to play to each opponent differently but is a player like BWP the best option when he and the midfield haven’t been on the same page for 90% of the year? Forward Brian White, whose tied this season with Royer for the most goals in league play, was out with injury but Tom Barlow was available and there was midfield options on the bench that could be used as subs and pushed up.
When BWP went out for injury the first game he missed was the April 28th home match against FC Cincinnati and the last game he had no part in was the June 9th game at the Philadelphia Union. In that time frame, the team won six of nine games and only left 8 out of a possible 27 points on the table. That was their best stretch this season and helped get them back in the playoff picture.
Wright-Phillips isn’t a bad player but the other members of the roster gelled against opponents like LA Galaxy, Atlanta United, and Real Salt Lake without him upfront.
If RBNY wants to make a statement in the playoffs, Armas needs to determine the weak links and understand why the teams he fields aren’t consistent. Otherwise, the chant he’s hearing might become reality as the team begins a rebuild in the off-season.
The team won’t return to the field until September 15 when they begin a two-week west coast road trip in Seattle. Until then much of the league will be on hiatus during the FIFA International Break window.