Chris Armas was the best MLS defensive midfielder of his generation. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Chris Armas played mostly with his heart and had enough self-awareness to balance that out with his highly tuned soccer brain.
He is likely to bring that mixture to the bench.
During his heyday with the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire, Armas was a fierce competitor and the best defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer. You could not find a better ball-winner — of first and second balls — and someone who knew his strengths and weaknesses so well.
He kept his game simple, which made life so complex for his rivals.
When Armas wore the Chicago colors, his first inclination was to find some else, usually Peter Nowak, to bring up the ball. Ditto with the national team, whether it was Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna or someone else wearing the red, white and blue on the receiving end of a quick outlet pass
Not surprisingly, Armas experienced his share of highs, winning the 1995 U.S. Interregional Soccer League championship with the Long Island Rough Riders, the 1998 MLS Cup, four Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup crowns and a Supporters Shield with the Fire.
Yet, it has never been an easy street for the 45-year-old Armas.
Despite being an outstanding player at the youth, high school and college levels (Adelphi University), he somehow fell through the cracks when it came to the national team early on in his career. Ignored by his country, Armas did the next best thing, he hooked up with the Puerto Rico national side to play internationally — due to family ties to the U.S. territory. FIFA eventually resolved the issue, saying that Armas participated in the Shell Caribbean Cup, which was not an official competition under the organization’s regulations. FIFA allowed the Brentwood, N.Y. native to play with the U.S. national side.
“When I made a decision to play for Puerto Rico, I thought that this might be the only chance I might get to play internationally,” Armas said years ago. “Because of the system, I wasn’t getting seen at all. [Adelphi coach] Bob Montgomery had been pushing for me, but people were saying, `Chris doesn’t have enough experience. We’re looking for guys who have a little more experience.’ Well, how do you get that experience? That’s what helped me make my decision. At the time, I felt a little bit helpless. But I’m lucky that the federation did what they did to clear me.”
Three times he was in place to perform for Uncle Sam and three times Armas was denied by knee injuries. That included the 2000 Summer Olympics and the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Each time it was an excruciating emotional experience, but Armas quickly put it behind him and pushed forward (for example, he was the 2003 MLS comeback player of the year).
By the time he called it a career in 2007, Armas had been capped 66 times and made 264 MLS appearances as the best holding mid of his generation (MLS Best XI five times and an MLS all-star on six occasions).
Yet, when it came to the National Soccer Hall of Fame ballot, Armas fell short every time he was eligible, a confounding situation for someone who was so dominant at his position during his stellar 12-year career.
He did not have gaudy stats as a high-scoring forward or a creative midfielder or goalkeeper who could make save after save. But Armas’ worth to his team was more than just numbers, as the man who did the dirty work and changed the momentum of games.
Yours truly brought up the NSHOF to Armas last year.
“I never played the game for that recognition,” he said. “I played the game to win, to be part of good teams and to empty my tank every single day. I did that in my career. I was part of good teams, winning teams and I did a lot with what I had. That was my reward. The accolades, it would be a great honor, but it’s out of my control at this point.”
Now, he does have something under his control as the man who will steer the fate of the Red Bulls.
Given his history, don’t be surprised if Armas combines his passion and logic to have the team positioned to make a long run in the MLS Cup playoffs, if not into the final, come November.