Small world

Marsch & Armas in-flight

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Chris Armas, Leeds' new assistant coach, leaning against a goalpost while playing for Chicago Fire against Dallas Burn in 1999. He's wearing a really cool dark orange jersey with 'FIRE' written across it in a white band

Jesse Marsch finally has an assistant to fill the gap created when Mark Jackson left his coaching role to take over in the gap in the league table occupied by MK Dons. Chris Armas is best known in the Premier League for being laughed out of Old Trafford while trying to help the reddest bull of them all, Ralf Rangnick, convince the squad of overpaid brats over there to run. The aftermath of that half-season is only one place to look for information about Armas, though. Another place is in the gushing profiles that were talking up his arrival.

“The first thing Jesse Marsch told me about bringing Chris in was that the guy’s a winner,” Max McCarty told The Athletic, about Marsch bringing his old Chicago Fire teammate to be his assistant at NYRB back in 2015. In training, according to teammate Alex Muyl, Armas then showed himself to be “a fucking competitor.”

This reminded me of a profile of Marsch himself, on the MLS website, from shortly after taking over at Elland Road. Jim Curtin, a teammate of Marsch and Armas at Chicago Fire, was certain Jesse would succeed at Leeds. “The biggest compliment I can give is that Jesse Marsch is a winner,” he said. “He has been from day one, and always will be.”

So now we have two winners, although we should keep in mind that Marsch and Armas have basically won the same things, at the same times. They were together at Chicago Fire from 1998 to 2005 — Armas stayed until 2007 — sharing wins in the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and three hoists of the US Open Cup (plus one more for Armas). Armas did more internationally — 66 USMNT caps to Marsch’s two, winning two CONCACAF Gold Cups and US Soccer Athlete of the year. But as a coach, his only honour is from his time on Marsch’s staff, winning the Supporters’ Shield as his assistant at NYRB in 2018.

They’ve a lot of shared history, but this is US Soccer. One challenge for the sport’s grandiose ambitions of reaching the semi-finals when it co-hosts the World Cup in 2026 is that it doesn’t have the infrastructure it should across all fifty states, each the size of a European country. It’s still relying on a late-1990s generation that looks more like a single high school athletics programme. Writing about the scandal enveloping USA head coach Gregg Berhalter and star player Gio Reyna and their families, Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote at The Ringer that, ‘Anybody who is anyone in the domestic game has known everybody else who is anyone for decades’:

‘To wit, the senior [Claudio] Reyna and Berhalter played youth soccer together, coached by Reyna’s father, Miguel. They went to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark together, a school that somehow produced four men’s national teamers and eleven pro soccer players overall (as well as, uh, Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy). Maybe that’s because the school is in New Jersey, which has yielded a wildly disproportionate number of national team players — six National Soccer Hall of Famers issued just from little Kearny (population 40,000). But that still doesn’t account for Claudio being the best man when Berhalter married Rosalind. The incident from college had been forgiven and the families stayed close. The Berhalters’ son, Sebastian, played for Austin FC, where Claudio is the sporting director and Berhalter’s former assistant, Josh Wolff, is the head coach; Gio Reyna, of course, played, or possibly still plays, for Berhalter.’

Jesse Marsch is 49, Chris Armas is 50. Claudio Reyna is 49, Gregg Berhalter is 49, Josh Wolff is 45 and was Jesse Marsch’s roommate at Chicago Fire, part of the same team with Chris Armas for four years. Jim Curtin, former coach of Brenden Aaronson at Philadelphia Union, is 43 and another from that Chicago Fire squad, later also Marsch’s teammate at Chivas USA. US Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart is 53 and did at least grow up and play most of his career in the Netherlands, while earning 101 USMNT caps alongside Berhalter, Reyna, Wolff, Marsch, Armas and co. These are so many guys who could all be the same guy, and after a while the sheer guyness makes them merge and blur into variations of this one guy, the US Soccer guy, filling every executive office of the sport.

Marsch and Armas don’t just match up their backgrounds and their shared playing and coaching careers. Their ideas all come from the same book too: The Red Bull book. At NYRB Armas was given the head coach’s job after Marsch left for Europe, after being and observed and approved by Ralf Rangnick. Then he had six months in charge of Toronto FC in 2021. The Athletic note that:

While New York Red Bulls underwent a decline during his tenure and Toronto never got out of second gear in his brief spell there, his time as Marsch’s assistant is more relevant to this appointment [at Old Trafford].

By the end of his time in Toronto, the growing consensus in MLS was that Armas was an ideal fit for the Red Bull ideology: be as active out of possession as you are with it, press relentlessly, get the ball to your pacy players behind the opposition defence and trust young players along the way.

So much, so Red Bull. As for Armas’ personal coaching style, Max McCarty told The Athletic:

“Chris’ role evolved throughout my time there as captain but, first and foremost, he was just a fantastic conduit between the players and the head coach. When Jesse and Chris came to Red Bull, they appreciated the nature and opinion of the players that had been at Red Bull for a while, and they wanted to incorporate our veteran corps’ opinions or feelings on basically everything that we did.

“That was one thing that Chris was really good at: Being that guy who could put his arm around you and get your honest opinion about what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish.”

This sounds a lot like the things Jesse Marsch is supposed to bring to the job. Here’s Marsch in Leipzig, describing how the training environment is more important to him than tactical detail. German coaches, he said, concentrate on “developing a playing style and a philosophy and a tactical manner of thinking”, whereas:

“I believe that what makes me a little bit different is my idea of leadership and my idea of communication,” he says. “I say it’s not one thing, it’s everything. It’s the energy when I show up here, the smile I have on my face when I say good morning to the guys, when I ask them how they’re doing, when I check in about their families, when I tell them how I thought the training was yesterday or how they did in the last game, what I think the next steps are for them, when I joke with them. It’s the overall interaction process in the training centre that’s about how we work together, what our idea is of a workday, what our idea is of a real team. It’s how I give them room, how I give them positive feedback, how I encourage them to give and give and give and give.”

Putting Marsch and Armas side by side, it starts to feel like what Marsch is getting is another version of himself. Marsch has seemed bemused lately, talking about not being able to understand why it has taken ten months to get his Leeds team to the point of executing his match plans effectively (if still without winning), and his way of speeding up the process seems to be bringing aboard another RB coach with not only the same tactical playbook, but the same personal, playing and coaching background, and the same coaching personality. Take for example this video of Chris Armas, taking over from Marsch in New York:

“Like I tell my kids, life is about opportunity,” Armas begins, the players arm in arm in a ring around him on the training pitch. “You never know when it’s coming knocking, you just prepare yourself. I think for all of us you try to create opportunity, and when it comes, you just take it. And I’ll tell you this, I’m running with it. Running. With. It. This thing is moving along in such a good way.” This sounds… familiar.

“I’m passionate, I care about people, I’m relentless with the details,” Armas adds in a voiceover, as if reading from a whiteboard Marsch forgot to wipe on his way out. “So I’m going to push and work tirelessly to bring trophies to the club.”

This stuff is what leads to those jibes about Marsch being too ‘American’ — Armas, too, was supposedly nicknamed ‘Ted Lasso’ by the lazy dickheads at Old Trafford. But those gags always feel off target, aiming at the wrong thing. Marsch and Armas can sound off-key because they use a corporate nowhere voice that has no home, no nostalgic warmth, no tangible authenticity beyond an approved list of motivational phrases and quotes. The language Marsch and Armas use isn’t ‘American’. It’s international but drained, like an article you might read in an in-flight magazine, where coming from Tokyo or Lagos means less than being in Business Class. A Hilton is a Hilton wherever you are, your Visa card always works, and leadership is leadership whether you’re creating the environment in Salzburg, Leipzig, New York, Sao Paulo or Leeds.

Of course, a coaching team needs consistency. It wouldn’t do for Marsch to have an assistant who doesn’t understand or believe in the football he wants to play. But coaching teams can benefit from variety of presentation. It’s the lesson of Alex Ferguson’s longevity at Old Trafford — he was ever present, but every few years he would choose a new assistant from the leading edge of the game, to give the players a fresh voice: when Steve McClaren replaced Brian Kidd, in 1999, he was one of just a handful of coaches getting to grips with new CD-rom analytics technology from a company in Leeds called Prozone. It’s why Mark Jackson’s local background was useful and Marsch was wise to bring him into his first team group. It’s why US Soccer is currently interrogating its own nepotism, a process that is putting Marsch’s chances of getting the national team job at risk, as the sport is learning the drawbacks of forever pulling from the same pool of middle-aged college and collegiate pals.

But because Marsch believes in his core that the key to success is creating a ‘leadership environment’ that allows young men to make the best of themselves, what Marsch wants from Chris Armas is more of what he’s been trying to make work for ten months. It’s a turn inward, a reinforcement of the same self who has been wondering aloud lately why his methods have not been getting results. Maybe Marsch’s ideas will become more effective if they’re echoed by his double. ⬢



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