Toronto FC coach Chris Armas was talking to a Toronto reporter over the phone while driving through New York City on a recent morning when, suddenly, the unmistakable sound of growling could be heard in the background.
“Hold on a second. I got this crazy dog with me,” Armas said with a laugh, joking that it wasn’t his wife growling at him, though sometimes that does happen.
Much has been said about Armas since he was introduced as TFC’s new coach last week. Friends, colleagues, former competitors have raved about his work ethic, his good nature, his sense of humour, his commitment to coaching. But most of all, his commitment to family. His own family and his soccer family.
Last May, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Armas posted a video he made to honour his “amazing” wife Justine, an OR nurse in New York.
“Dear Justine. It’s a very fitting time, especially on National Nurses Day, to tell you how proud we are of you — me, Christopher and Aleksei,” he said, referring to the couple’s two sons. “You’ve always been an amazing nurse because you care so much about your patients. And you always put them first. But it’s incredible, so impressive, to see you nervously leave home, go to work, come home mentally and physically exhausted, all because you work so hard with compassion, courage and the highest-level of commitment to the job and to the people. You’re a real hero in our eyes. And I can’t thank you enough for all that you’re doing on the front lines. We love you.”
Family means everything to Armas, who was hired by the Reds after Greg Vanney decided not to return following the 2020 season. Vanney has since moved on to the L.A. Galaxy. A native of the Bronx, who moved with his family to Long Island, NY. as a tyke, Armas credits his parents — Phil and Crysel — with making him the person he is today.
“I credit them with everything,” Armas said. “They taught me the way. They taught me how to work hard, they taught me how to never make excuses. They taught me how to give everything everyday. They taught me how to consider others. They taught me the difference between right and wrong, and that there’s consequences with that. (They emphasized) whatever you do, you do your best. They taught me about family. They taught me the core values. But most of all, I got to watch by example. It wasn’t from a book. They got married at 18 years old and they’ve worked hard their whole life. So what I got from them was hard work. It’s why I love (former New York Ranger) Mark Messier. Because, for me, when I watched him play, he was the guy. He was THE guy. I wanted to play like him — work hard, battle, give everything, be a leader, but also, can you bring quality?”
Armas’ father was a supervisor of security for a large supermarket chain, while his mom was a nurse. Armas said his parents emphasized education while also encouraging their sons’ athletic endeavors.
“You had to get good grades. They set a standard in the house, and we had a lot of fun in our house with the three boys and our parents. And they never missed a soccer game,” said Armas.
Armas laughingly calls himself “the ignored middle child” growing up in the family’s Brentwood home. When not at school or doing homework, sports was all consuming. And not just soccer.
“In New York when I was growing up, with every season, whatever sport was hot at the time, that’s what all the kids played,” he said. “I was playing roller hockey in the streets, mimicking fist fights. Then it was at the park playing baseball, and, of course there was tackle football.
“Soccer wasn’t the sport being played in the parks recreationally,” Armas continued. “That was played in my backyard with friends and my brothers and my dad. And we played non-stop. Non-stop.”
Like many youngsters, Armas grew up dreaming of becoming a professional athlete, in every sport he took part in. And he loved them all. Growing up on Long Island, he was a big fan of those championship New York Islanders teams of the early 1980’s, as well as the New York Yankees, the New York Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League and the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League, a club that played, along with the Islanders, at nearby Nassau Coliseum.
“(Mike) Bossy, (Bryan) Trottier, (Bob) Nystrom, Clark Gillies,” said Armas, rhyming off his favourite Islanders. “I also followed the early Edmonton teams with Wayne Gretzky and Messier, and all those guys. So, (in the winter) I was dreaming of being a pro hockey player. And then, (in the summer), I was a future New York Yankee. But when I got to be a teenager — maybe 13 or 14 — I started dreaming about being Pele. Then (Diego) Maradona. But when I’m taking the penalty shot in my backyard, I was Pele.”
As he got older, Armas realized that if he had a future in sports, it was in soccer.
He graduated from St. Anthony’s High School and then attended Adelphi University from 1990 to 1993, amassing 17 goals and 15 assists over his collegiate career and was named an NCAA Division I First Team All-American his senior year, though Armas wasn’t sure what the future would hold for him as a pro. MLS was still two years away from its inaugural season.
“When I was in college, my mom said, ‘What do you want to do (when you graduate) Chris?’ And I’d say, ‘I want to be a pro soccer player.’ And she’d say, ‘Yeah. But there’s no pro league. There’s no pathway to Europe at this point.’ But she let me dream. And then sure enough, Major League Soccer started and that became a clear pathway.”
Armas spent 1994 and 1995 playing for the USISL’s Long Island Rough Riders, what he called the perfect introduction to MLS.
“When I was in the college, they started the USISL and Long Island started talking about getting a team. And then, heaven sent, it was perfect timing. I graduated college in ’94, and New York got a team in ’94,” he said. “We were getting 5,000 people a game, with players like Tony Meola, Giovanni Savarese, Jim Rooney, guys that went on to play in MLS. And it was run incredibly well.”
In 1996, Armas was drafted by Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the MLS Supplemental Draft and his career took off. A midfielder, Armas played 12 seasons in the league, for the Galaxy and Chicago Fire (under coach Bob Bradley, the father of current TFC captain Michael Bradley), and was named to the MLS Best XI four consecutive times between 1998 and 2001, his streak only broken by an ACL injury that kept him out of most of the 2002 season. Armas earned his fifth Best XI after the 2003 MLS campaign, in addition to being named the MLS Comeback Player of the Year. He retired following the 2007 season.
“The timing was great,” said Armas of his transition into coaching. “Some people tell me my timing was not great, saying, ‘Well if you were a pro now, you’d be making millions of dollars.’ But I’d say, ‘My timing was perfect. That’s secondary to fulfilling a childhood dream (of playing). And I think athletes these days that lose sight of that get lost.'”
Armas served as an assistant coach for the Chicago Fire in 2008 and then the head women’s soccer coach at Adelphi University between 2011 and 2015. He was promoted to head coach of the New York Red Bulls in July, 2018 when former manager Jesse Marsch departed the club to join RB Leipzig. Armas helped guide the Red Bulls to the Supporters’ Shield but was let go last September. And now Armas has a new soccer family. On Jan. 13, after what TFC GM Ali Curtis called an exhaustive search, the Reds hired Armas as the club’s 10th head coach. Some TFC supporters expressed disappointment via social media that the Reds didn’t go for a so-called bigger name — perhaps an international coach from a European club. TFC captain Michael Bradley certainly wasn’t disillusioned with the hiring. Bradley has known Armas since he was a kid, when Armas played in Chicago for Bradley’s father.
“I’m lucky because I have seen first-hand the way that he is with people, the way that he can make people better, the way that he pushes and challenges people but does it in such a positive and inclusive way,” Bradley said on the TFC website last week. “So when I think about what (his hiring) means for our team and our club, I think it’s really exciting.”
Bradley said Vanney leaving “hit everybody hard” and no one was pleased that the Reds were eliminated in the first round of the 2020 MLS Cup playoffs by expansion club Nashville SC. But the captain said bringing in Armas is a step in the right direction as the club strives to remain MLS contenders and win trophies.
“I think it means that we can really turn the page in a really good way,” said Bradley.
Armas said he is excited and grateful to be with the Reds and can hardly wait to embrace a team and city that he has admired for years from the outside.
“Toronto for me is the standard in the league, and they’re a club that expects excellence. And I speak that language,” he said, adding that T.O. reminds him of his hometown. “Toronto is such a tremendous city with a diverse population, with a European influence, some say even more diverse than New York City, which is hard to believe. A sports town for sure, with a winning culture. Friendly people, safe city. It’s moving fast, there are opportunities everywhere. I’m a New Yorker and I think I will feel comfortable in that environment. In fact, the more I learned about Toronto, the more I felt it is exactly where I want to be.”