Wish it. Dream it. Do it.
The words, written on the front of a ceramic turtle figurine, caught Chris Armas’ eye a decade or so ago when he was in an airport gift shop looking for something to bring home to his young sons.
“I’ll take two,” he said, likely never expecting that years later the phrase would not only become a favorite family saying but the essence of his coaching philosophy.
The Long Island native took over as head coach of the Red Bulls this midseason, a little less than three months ago. Despite the fact his team is young and the franchise has never won a championship, Armas sees no reason why their goal shouldn’t be to win it all this year.
“I talk a lot about winning,” Armas said after a recent practice at the team’s training facility. “I try to help them believe. Fake it ‘til you make it. I told them just the other day that people think if you win the trophy you become a winner. I said trust me guys. It’s backwards. You are a winner first. You show up and walk like a winner, think like a winner, work like a winner. And then the trophy follows.”
This is a philosophy Armas, a midfielder who spent 12 seasons as a MLS player, first honed growing up in Brentwood.
The second born of three boys, Armas never wanted to do anything but make a living playing soccer. His mother, Crysel, remembers him spending hour upon hour in their side yard when he was in elementary school in Brentwood, kicking a ball against the side of a stoop. She also can remember him practicing his signature, almost as if he knew he would one day be famous enough to be asked for an autograph.
Playing professional soccer, however, was a pretty tough occupational goal, considering there really wasn’t a true professional outdoor soccer league in the United States in the late-eighties and early-nineties when Armas was a star at St. Anthony’s High School and then Adelphi.
Bob Montgomery coached Armas on regional youth teams beginning when he was 12 and then later on at Adelphi, where he was a first-team All-American in 1993 during his senior year. Montgomery said Armas has always been the type of guy who made everyone else on the field look better.
“There’s so many people who like the guys who do the fancy things and ooh and ah,” Montgomery said. “But behind every team there are certain guys who are so cerebral and they have character and leadership. Chris is that guy.”
After graduating in 1994 with a degree in physical education, Armas played for the newly-formed Long Island Roughriders for two seasons, helping lead them to a USISL championship his second year. The Roughriders, says Montgomery, didn’t pay a livable salary and players had to coach and have other side ventures in order to get by.
The soccer landscape and Armas’ fortune changed drastically in 1996 when MLS was created. Suddenly, Armas has a chance to live his dream and play soccer for a living. Armas dreamed of playing in his backyard for the team (the MetroStars) that became the Red Bulls and thought he had a good chance of going there. Instead, he was snapped up by the Los Angeles Galaxy with the No. 6 overall pick.
That launched a 12-year playing career that also included several stints on the U.S. National team. Armas emerged as an exceptional player after he was traded to the Chicago Fire before their inaugural campaign. Armas helped lead the franchise to a MLS championship his first year and was a MLS All-Star six times.
Armas played in 264 MLS regular season games and in many ways was incredibly durable. The injuries he did suffer, however, were incredibly untimely as he missed getting to play for the World Cup in both 2002 and 2006 after tearing his ACL before each tournament.
“It’s a lonely place when you are in a hospital bed watching your World Cup team at 3 a.m.,” Armas said. “Two weeks earlier I was hooked up to a heart-rate monitor and leading the team with Landon Donovan in a fitness test, and now I couldn’t lift my leg out of bed. I really credit my family — my mom and dad and my wife — for getting me through it.”
Armas’ family has also been there for him now that he has been asked to make one of the hardest transitions a young coach can be asked to make — replacing a popular and successful coach midseason. Armas was an assistant coach for three and a half years under Jesse Marsch, who left the team to “explore other opportunities in Europe.”
Right now, it appears the transition has been fairly seamless, except that Armas now leaves his home in Floral Park at 6 a.m. in order to beat the traffic to the team’s practice facility. The Red Bulls (17-7-5) are in second place in the Eastern Conference heading into Saturday’s game against Toronto FC at Red Bull Arena. The team is 7-3-3 under Armas, who took over the club on July 6.
“Chris is an easy guy to work with and play for,” said Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is the No. 2 scorer in the league with 19 goals and 7 assists. “He likes to talk, but he also listens. He likes to involve us. It’s always been interactive here, but this is even more. No one can hide and that’s good. When you go into a meeting or practice, you have to be prepared.”
Armas believes his team is peaking at the right time as it gets ready to head into the final month of the regular season. There’s nothing he’d like more than to be the coach that finally helps get the Red Bulls a title. And he knows it is possible.
Armas knows what it is like to have a big first season. In Chicago, they won their first MLS title in their first season and don’t think this isn’t something that isn’t mentioned frequently around the Red Bulls training facility.
Armas wants his players to dream big just like he did.
“My dream was to be a pro soccer player and I did it,” Armas said. “For me that sums it up. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. But when the doors opened, I ran right through them.”
Wish it. Dream it. Do it.