Chris Armas takes over Colorado Rapids with “clearer” identity | MLSSoccer.com
Chris Armas, looking out at an empty Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, started envisioning the 2024 season.
Two weeks earlier, just before Thanksgiving, he had been named the Colorado Rapids’ next head coach. And quickly, Armas rattled off “big-ticket” items that will determine if the club’s new era is successful or not – returning to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, making runs in cup competitions and regaining the Rocky Mountain Cup after Real Salt Lake have heavily tilted those rivalry scales.
Above all? Armas referenced creating new energy around the club, both on and off the field.
“If the team comes together as a united group, guys that care about each other and play for each other and can get on the same page – they hold each other accountable, they understand what tough games are about – we know we’re doing something really right as a staff,” Armas told MLSsoccer.com.
“Then the tactical style of play, it’s clear we’re a team that plays with intensity, that sprints into attack, that is relentless when we lose the ball. If we’re instilling that style of play and everyone is bought in, not just doing it because the coach is asking, but everyone loves it and understands it, then the building starts filling up a bit more.
“From there, we win games at home and the home-field advantage this club had not too long ago starts coming back. These are the things that I know will help those knockout games, those decisive games. That locker room piece, the style of play piece unified together, I believe that’s the formula.”
Armas, back on the MLS sidelines after previously leading the New York Red Bulls (2018-20) and Toronto FC (2021), faces a tall task while succeeding Robin Fraser and Chris Little. Fraser was let go in early September, and Little saw out the year on interim status before Colorado’s search ended with the 51-year-old former MLS midfielder coming aboard.
This past campaign, the Rapids finished last (14th place) in the Western Conference table with a club-worst 0.79 points per game (5W-17L-12D record). Colorado’s negative-28 goal differential was second-worst in MLS, and their 26 goals scored were tied with Wooden Spoon winners Toronto FC for the fewest in the league. They didn’t win a regular-season game in Commerce City until July 8, four-plus months into their slate.
There’s little room to go but up.
“These fans have experienced winning MLS Cup in 2010. We lifted a trophy here two years ago, first place in the conference,” Armas said. “Why should they not be pissed right now? They want more and they absolutely should.
“Now, can we find that style of play to get there? It requires energy, it needs togetherness, clarity, being dangerous when we don’t have the ball, a mentality that when you have the ball we’re going to win it and this is a chance to score. And equally, when we have the ball, we have clear ideas and we play in a structure. The intensity or proactiveness in possession is verticality and it’s not just long balls; it’s playing between lines, breaking lines, having players that are comfortable breaking lines with passes, comfortable receiving balls in the gap.
“This is what I think our fans will appreciate and get behind, because I believe it’s going to lead to winning.”
“The way they spoke about his coaching style and how he connected with [players] gave me great confidence that we were getting the right person for this role.”
— Colorado Rapids (@ColoradoRapids) December 3, 2023
Period of growth
For Armas, this outlook was honed over the last two and a half years. He worked as an assistant coach at Manchester United and Leeds United, first under Ralf Rangnick and then under Jesse Marsch, testing himself in the English Premier League. He threw himself fully into each job and holds no regrets over that period of growth, of being in those pressure-filled environments.
“I would just say I’m clearer after that time overseas,” Armas said. “As a coach, you stand in front of a team and I come with my ideas of how to lead. Much of me then is how I am now, but I’m clearer on certain things of what I’m valuing, the leadership, the team-first mentality that I’ve always, always had.
“Then the tactical and style of play and identity standpoint, I’ve just added to who I was. It’s more ideas against the ball, whether it be man-marking a little bit in a high press, certain structures in a mid-block, or defending in a low block. Different ideas about how to talk about transition moments, whether it’s on the ball, around the ball, away from the ball. It’s getting clearer with how to deliver the messaging and bring to life a style of play.”
To turn a vision into reality, Armas acknowledged Colorado’s roster will look different in 2024. That’s inevitable after the lows of 2023, creating a busy winter ahead for club president Pádraig Smith, sporting director Fran Taylor and the scouting department as they canvas the transfer market for players to meet Armas’ style and implement the Rapids’ identity.
As of publication, Colorado’s roster stands at just 24 players as longtime staples Jack Price and Diego Rubio depart.
“We have work to do,” Armas said. “The roster, we have a good core, but let’s add to it with quality, these mentality monsters, some winners. You’ve mentioned Houston, it’s kind of what they did for this year. They had almost 20 changes and they did really well in quickly turning things around.
“We like this younger spine of a team and there’s guys here already in place,” Armas continued. “The Cole Bassetts, the Moïse Bombitos, the Connor Ronans, we’ve seen their quality. We think we have a really good striker in Rafa Navarro. If we can get him some service and we can get him some reps, he’s going to score goals. He’s proven to do that in Brazil. We like the core, but we also like that there’s an opportunity to add. The key now is to spend and add wisely.”
Full steam ahead
Armas, no stranger to the rigors of MLS, is adamant he’s a different coach now than when his Toronto tenure turned pear-shaped. Part of that is rewatching MLS games he coached with a supremely critical eye – “I didn’t want to pick up where I left off.” Being at hallowed grounds like Elland Road and Old Trafford left a mark, as did dealing with adversity of his father passing away from cancer – “I’m even thicker-skinned now because of it.”
Now, as preseason begins in January and the real tests arrive as winter turns to spring, it’s about proving he and Colorado are moving in the right direction. The Rapids’ fans, after a taxing year, will demand as much.
“I’ve used this extra grit, the toughness, the tactical nuances that I’ve picked up, asked questions, added what I liked, deleted what I don’t, and now here I am,” Armas said. “I feel really prepared and ready for this challenge.”