Chris Armas’ growth, connections and personal tragedy during Premier League spell

Chris Armas’ growth, connections and personal tragedy during Premier League spell

The phone conversation between Ralf Rangnick and Chris Armas in December of 2021 did not last long.

Rangnick offered Armas a dream job: the chance to coach at Manchester United during the German’s interim spell in charge of the Premier League club. It was five months since Armas’ second stint as a head coach, one that lasted just 11 games in Major League Soccer (MLS) with Toronto FC. Now he was looking at a chance to be on the bench at one of the most historic clubs in the world.

“I was on the plane in a few days,” Armas tells The Athletic. “It was surreal.”

But Armas was walking into a difficult situation in Manchester. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been sacked and United were struggling. Rangnick was appointed interim manager in the hope he might be able to stabilize things.

However, trying to implement his philosophies would bring stark changes to a star-filled roster. The six-month timeline with an interim tag made things even more difficult. It was a brutal introduction to one of the most scrutinized teams in the best league in the world.

Armas, an accomplished player in the U.S., was a coach whose resume was unknown to most in the Premier League. He quickly found himself under the microscope on a global scale. Being one of the rare Americans to coach in Europe added another element.

“When I initially got there, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, the American is here.’ It didn’t feel like that,” Armas says. “You talk to players and Cristiano (Ronaldo) is like, ‘Oh, you’re from the Bronx.’ They read a little bit about you, they know a few things here and there.

“But I would say at some point, when things were getting tougher for the club in terms of results, yeah, I think I was an easy target. Things came out publicly, the training sessions, what have you, that frankly were just not true. So journalists, or whoever is putting that out there, just flat-out lying. Just lies. So that part, is it because I’m American? I’m not sure. But I think I became an easy target at a certain point in the season when things weren’t going well.”

Armas in discussion with  Rangnick at Old Trafford (Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

One encounter in particular, which was first reported by The Athletic after Rangnick’s sacking, made headlines. Armas met legendary former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and discussed his coaching and playing background. After their chat, multiple sources said they heard Ferguson say words to the effect of: “You’ll need more than that here, son.”

“I met Sir Alex Ferguson one time, on my first night at the club,” Armas says. “I was able to go into (his) suite, I forget before or after the match, and just introduce myself to everyone in the room…I said hi to 10 people and he was the last person. I just said it was an honor to meet him…I just told him I read a lot of his books and listened to some books in the car on drives and it was just such an honor and he wished me luck.

“We had someone in common that we know from Chicago, Ron Stern. He asked about Ron’s uncle, Lee, and that was it.

“So then, when it comes out that Sir Alex is saying that I’m throwing my resume around to him or something, it’s not even far from the truth, it’s just a lie. It was just a lie. And again, what mattered to me, I met a legend and someone that I really look up to in terms of the accomplishments, the leadership, the whole way about him.”

After leaving United with Rangnick at the end of the 2021-22 season, Armas joined his former Chicago Fire teammate and RBNY colleague Jesse Marsch as an assistant at Leeds United earlier this year. Marsch was fired just 12 days later, leaving Armas in limbo.

He remained at the club for several weeks, even serving as an interim co-manager for a game back at Manchester United, but eventually departed when Javi Gracia was hired. Gracia was sacked last week, replaced by Sam Allardyce, as Leeds fight to avoid relegation.

Both of Armas’ stops were tumultuous in different ways, bringing outside scrutiny — at times inaccurately, he said — but Armas says he has no regrets about his forays into the Premier League.

“I would say my time in England was a positive,” Armas says. “It was well-received by so many people in and around where I lived and inside the clubs, and that’s what meant more to me than some things that were written at the time.”

That outlook is a reflection of his character. For those in American soccer circles, Armas is widely respected, both for his playing career, in which he was happy to be a workhorse in midfield, and as a coach, colleague and friend. Armas has a reputation in the U.S. for his ability to build relationships in locker rooms, earning the trust and respect of players.

It was a strength he tried to bring across the Atlantic.

“I think the thing I’d say about Manchester United was you realize quickly — honestly, even on day one — that they’re regular guys,” Armas says. “Superstars, but when you talk about Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Cristiano, they’re players, (but) they’re people.

“I think it was important for me to try to establish myself every day and just work hard, and I just tried to give as much as I could each day and I did that. I think over time, you earn respect, or maybe you don’t, but I think I earned respect around there from the Darren Fletchers (the former United player, now the club’s technical director), the people at the organization and, for me, most importantly, the players. It was a learning experience, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a difficult time for United but I learned a lot and grew a lot on that job.”

Armas adds that while the stature of the players was different to those he had coached before, the approach to the job was not. At least not in terms of getting to know the characters at the club.

“I think it’s about the work and you want to be judged for the work,” Armas says. “So you’re running sessions, putting together practice sessions, and there’s always conversations. There’s always going to be 100 little conversations every day and most of them are very deliberate on my end.

“So when the guys are in the gym every day, meal room, it’s little conversations. Learn about guys, how they play, how they think about their families, about their children, what are they doing after training? And quickly I think people see that you’re someone here that’s got something to give. You have football conversations and those are important because you’ll reveal what you know and what you don’t know. … And every day you earn some trust.

“How long does that take? My way or my strategy, honestly, is be yourself, but in a deliberate way try to connect with as many people as quick as possible. And I did that at the entire club, from the support staff, to the dining room (employees), to the players.”

Armas before Leeds vs. Manchester United at Old Trafford, Wednesday February 8, 2023. (Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Armas said he felt steeled for the type of media coverage he saw in England because he has long understood that criticisms, warranted and not, are very much a part of the job. Over the course of two World Cup cycles, Armas was a U.S. national team regular. He was the U.S. Soccer male player of the year in 2000. Still, he would hear the criticisms from fans.

“People on the outside would say, ‘Chris Armas sucks. He shouldn’t be on the national team, why is he?’ So even if you can make it to the top of a national team … people are still saying (that),” he says. “In this line of work, as a player, as a coach, in the spotlight, there’s always going to be people that just either don’t agree with (you), they don’t like you, they say things. That’s part of it.”

Events in Armas’ personal life have also given him a different outlook on his career.

“My dad died a year ago, you get a new perspective,” Armas says. “So while I’m in Manchester, my dad’s battling cancer. So what can anyone say that really matters? What can really bother me that much?”

Even with that heartache, Armas focused on the job, leaning into the relationships he was building and trying to get the most out of his time with Rangnick and at Leeds. He hoped for more with Leeds, but even that short tenure provided a massive opportunity — and some validation.

“It was amazing to get back there with Leeds to play against Man U,” Armas said. “When a dozen players, staff, they’re waiting for me after the game in the tunnel to say hello — Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire, a bunch of guys, Victor (Lindelof), big hugs all around. And again, that means more to me than anything else because you realize your time there was, yes, it’s about wins and losses, for sure, it’s about growing, but it’s about the connections, always.”

What’s next for Armas remains up in the air. He has undoubtedly taken much away from his two stints in the Premier League, in managing different personalities and learning to deal with the pressures at the top level of the game. He has had the chance to analyze teams like Manchester City, Arsenal and Real Madrid up close. The time in England, he says, has impacted how he sees the game and evolved some of his philosophies. He certainly has learned more about managing big personalities.

He would like another chance at a head coaching position. ”I still love the whole team dynamic and being the leader of a team and what that can look like, it still interests me. I still have a lot to go there and a lot to give,” he says. But Armas acknowledges there are “probably a few jobs that I would be an assistant coach, but it has to be the right situation with the right people.”

Would that include joining Marsch’s staff if he is hired as manager of the U.S. men’s national team ahead of the 2026 World Cup?

“I made the decision recently to work with Jesse at Leeds, I’d always consider working with Jesse,” says Armas.

After coming so close to representing the U.S. at two World Cups only to miss out owing to injury — one 10 days before the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan, the other a few months ahead of Germany 2006 — it would be a great chance to add one more major experience to his resume.

And for Armas, it could be yet another reason to feel thankful — even despite what it looks like from the outside.

“I learned along the way, there’s things I would do the same, some things I would do differently, but you learn and you grow,” Armas said. “All of these experiences, I think make you a little bit more ready for the next one.”

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: John Bradford)

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