You could chalk it up to just coach speak. You could chalk it up to just a preseason cliche.
You could also chalk it up to a regression in ambition.
New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas made a startling comment on Thursday afternoon, saying during a conference call that his mind was not currently on making the playoffs or winning MLS Cup but rather on trying to improve his team and getting the players to become a group that is truly committed to the cause and each other.
Sure, his comments on their own could be deemed reasonable, but sometimes it is not about what a person says and rather about what they don’t say. Most clubs, coaches and players, talk about trying to at least make the playoffs and going from there, but Armas did not even go there.
What’s more, Armas’ recent comments are a stark contrast to what he said last fall after getting knocked out of the playoffs at the hands of the Philadelphia Union.
“Everyone in this organization from the top — Marc (de Grandpre), Denis (Hamlett), (the people) who sell the tickets — has one goal in mind and we want to win the trophy,” said Armas at the Red Bulls’ end-of-season availability on Oct. 23, 2019. “That’s the goal, every day. What’s the goal? There’s that trophy out there. We’re going for it and we’re all aligned and we give everything.”
Now, let’s look at part of what Armas said on Thursday when asked about his expectations for the 2020 season.
“I’ll tell you this: I’m not thinking of the playoffs, I’m not thinking of MLS Cup, and no one is talking about that,” said Armas. “My expectation and the demand around here is excellence. Every day what we do as a staff and players, we’re talking about the process, we’re talking about one percent better, and then you guys can make expectations and predictions.”
First off, Armas’ statement is factually inaccurate. Alejandro ‘Kaku’ Romero Gamarra did an interview with Vavel.com that came out earlier on Thursday in which Kaku said “MLS Cup was the team’s principal objective.” Kaku also mentioned trying to compete for the U.S. Open Cup.
Secondly, what happened to all that contending talk Armas mentioned a mere four months ago? What happened to the talk of that trophy being out there? What happened to the admittedly high standard and ambition the Red Bulls had for themselves? Where did all that go? How did Armas go from every day thinking of MLS Cup in 2019 to not even thinking about it now?
Literally in the span of one offseason, Armas has gone from publicly discussing fighting for Major League Soccer’s biggest prize to working through and trusting a process. Maybe that could be overlooked in most instances and chalked up to a coach strategically trying to alleviate pressure from his group. A case of saying one thing publicly and another privately.
What hurts both Armas and the Red Bulls in this case, however, is that their offseason haul has been vastly underwhelming for a second consecutive year. Public perception has long been that ownership has become frugal — which is clearly evidenced by the Red Bulls’ inability to sign a third Designated Player for several years — and the last few months have done zero to change that.
For example, the team brought back Josh Sims on another loan and signed goalkeeper David Jensen and right back Mandela Egbo. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls lost veteran leaders Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips, arguably the best MLS fullback in Kemar Lawrence, and the enigmatic Michael Amir Murillo.
Do those additions outweigh the losses? Is this roster really better today than it was a year ago? Is there real confidence from the inside of that locker room that this group can contend with the likes of the Seattle Sounders, LAFC, and Atlanta United in crunch time? Or do the players believe deep down this is not a championship-caliber roster?
Let’s not forget one of the reasons Lawrence pushed to leave the Red Bulls this winter to the point that he aired dirty laundry publicly was because he felt the team was not ambitious enough anymore. That the Red Bulls did not have “the mindset to run for a championship.” That the Red Bulls were instead “going back into a rebuilding structure.”
From the outside looking at the current roster, and Armas’ expectation comments, it seems the bar has indeed been lowered. Becoming a champion is apparently not as imperative as it once was to the Red Bulls.
“We want to win here, but we want to above all be a real team that’s together,” Armas also said on Thursday.
Above all. Those are the key words.
It is hard to imagine many Red Bulls fans reading or hearing that and nodding in agreement. The most important thing for the Red Bulls after years of trying to win that elusive first MLS Cup, coming close on a couple of occasions, is to become a unified team rather than a championship team? That is what is Armas is striving for? Really?
Sure, there is truth to the notion that the Red Bulls as a whole were not fully committed to the cause in 2019. Kaku was distracted for a time by overseas interest, so too was returning centerback Aaron Long. Murillo, another player who drew attention from abroad, also seemed checked out mentally for all of last season.
And sure, Armas can only work with what he is given. It is not necessarily his or Hamlett’s fault that Red Bulls ownership has cut back on spending in recent years and is leaving them to make due with a young roster lacking top-end talent.
Still, the club’s fans are not going to pay money to buy tickets and head to Red Bull Arena this season with the idea that the end goal is seeing a unified group give it their all.
No, Red Bulls fans want goals. They want wins. They want an MLS Cup.
Armas should too.