Club and country. They're the magnetic poles of a soccer player's
world, a constant source of divided loyalty--paycheck versus
patriotism--that makes futbol unique among the major sports.
Imagine that Derek Jeter had to leave the New York Yankees for a
couple of days to play in a real World Series, for the U.S. Or
that Kevin Garnett had to jet from the Olympics straight to Game
1 of the NBA Finals. Such was the scenario last week facing Chris
Armas, the most indispensable player for both the Chicago Fire
and the U.S. national soccer team.
Over five days, club and country converged for an American player
as never before. On Wednesday, Oct. 11, the U.S. met Costa Rica
in Columbus, Ohio, needing a victory to clinch a berth in the
final round of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. Then on Sunday
in Washington, D.C., the Fire took on the Kansas City Wizards in
MLS Cup 2000 to decide the champion of U.S. professional soccer.
But this soccer weenie's fantasy also turned out to be an
exhausting odyssey for Armas. His task last week? Run a combined
14 miles in two defensive struggles, in two cities, four days
apart--with a knee injury that makes grown men cry. Floored by a
vicious tackle in a World Cup qualifier against Barbados in
August, Armas was still nursing a grade-two sprain of his left
MCL that had caused him to miss the Olympics and a month of the
MLS season. Whenever the ligament flares up--from kicking the
ground accidentally or from cutting too abruptly--it feels "like
needles all over the inside of your knee," Armas says.
To appreciate Armas's manifold talents is, first, to understand
what he's not. He is not the savior of American soccer, and he is
not the electric goal scorer the U.S. has craved for years. Yet
Armas's skills are no less important. He is, in soccer parlance,
a ball winner--"a little thief running around the midfield," says
Chicago's Jesse Marsch--who combines deft footwork and
anticipation to separate the opponent's playmaker from the ball.
Armas, 28, is the first American who can be mentioned in the same
breath as Manchester United's Roy Keane, the gold standard for
defensive midfielders. "Chris is the guy who does the dirty work,
who disrupts everything the other team does," says Fire striker
Ante Razov, who like Armas and teammate Josh Wolff played in both
games last week. "You don't notice him, but our playmakers
wouldn't do crap without him."
We pick up Armas's journey in Columbus, home of the best soccer
stadium in the country.
Wednesday, Oct. 11
He almost didn't come. Armas had aggravated his knee injury
during the Fire's semifinal victory over the New York/New Jersey
MetroStars on the previous Friday. That night, when he couldn't
bend or straighten his leg without feeling pain, he thought, Am I
going to miss the qualifier and MLS Cup? After all this work?
Armas made the trip anyway, though four hours before game time
he's still nervous, unsure that he can last the entire match.
"I'm shooting for 90 minutes," he says. "Anything less, and that
means I'm feeling some pain."
Armas holds on for the full 90, but the U.S. struggles. The team
is missing six starters because of injury or suspension, forcing
coach Bruce Arena to cobble together a lineup of reserves and a
few regulars. Because the U.S. is using three men on the back
line instead of the usual four, Armas must shadow his mark,
midfielder Jafet Soto, all over the right side of the field,
playing more like a defender than a midfielder. In the 13th
minute Soto slips free on the ball with nobody between him and
goalkeeper Kasey Keller, only to have Armas rush back to
intercept him. They collide in the penalty box, both falling to
the ground. A hush. No whistle. "You never know if the ref's
going to call it," Armas says later, after shutting down Soto and
helping limit Costa Rica to two shots on goal.
The Americans' best scoring chance comes near the end when Armas
rips a cracker from 20 yards. Goalkeeper Alvaro Messen blocks the
shot, the U.S.'s Joe-Max Moore can't one-time the rebound, and,
just like that, the game's over. Nil-nil. The sellout crowd of
24,430 at Crew Stadium leaves disappointed, for now the U.S. has
to wait until next month's match at Barbados for a chance to
advance in World Cup qualifying. "If we were sharper with our
passes in the final third," Armas says, "maybe we come out with a
Already the clock is ticking toward Sunday. "Tomorrow night I'll
start to feel really sore," Armas says, "and the next morning you
start getting pains in your feet and your legs and your back. All
of a sudden you're like, My body's killing me."
Thursday, Oct. 12
More discouraging news: Armas, his wife, Justine, and teammates
Razov and Wolff are stuck at Port Columbus airport for two hours
after their United flight to Washington is canceled. The problem
is similar to the one that plagued the U.S. offense the day
before: engine trouble. They schlepp to the US Airways terminal.
"So we wait a couple of hours--no big deal," says Armas, who folds
himself into a middle seat in coach. "It does make the day a
little longer, though."
A massage at the hotel in Washington does only so much. The
soreness is getting worse.
Friday, Oct. 13
Sure enough, Armas's first steps out of bed are excruciating.
Fortunately, he has something to look forward to--the annual MLS
Cup media luncheon. "Everyone feels important," he says of the
participants in the title game. "Tomorrow it gets more serious,
but it's nice for the guys to get all that attention." There's no
denying, after all, that soccer is still America's No. 5 team
sport, and some rookies make as little as $24,000 a year, a point
driven home when several Fire players pluck cans of Milo, a
chocolate drink, from an MLS display table and stash them in
their pockets as they leave.
For most big soccer matches around the world, team hotel lobbies
are clogged with groupies and autograph seekers. Not this time.
The Fire is sharing the Sheraton Premiere hotel with more than
800 elderly women, members of the Catholic Daughters of the
Americas. It's a strange tableau. At dinner the hotel restaurant
is filled with 80 septuagenarians, all of them oblivious to
Chicago's Bulgarian striker, Hristo Stoitchkov, a two-time World
Player of the Year runner-up, eating quietly in their midst.
In room 238 Armas lies on a trainer's table, his left knee
wrapped with an electric stimulator. "When Chris left last Friday
night," Fire trainer Rich Monis says, "we were hoping for selfish
reasons that he wouldn't play [for the U.S.]. But as long as he
felt O.K., it was up to him."
"How does it feel?" Monis asks, removing the stimulator.
Armas grimaces. "I feel it up here," he says, pointing to the
inside of his knee. No more therapy for today, though. Armas
calls it a night.
Saturday, Oct. 14
"Whoa, Chippendales!" a female voice chirps, hailing Stoitchkov,
who's strutting through a hallway of the Sheraton in a tuxedo
vest with no shirt and rented black pants that are four inches
too short. Moments later he hikes down the high-waters, revealing
a white Calvin Klein waistband that makes him look like Marky
Mark in the old Times Square ads. He's having fun, but that's not
The point is, what kind of league would force its players to
attend a black-tie banquet the night before the championship
game? Why, MLS, which presents its awards to the season's top
players, the Best 11, at a gala only 18 hours before kickoff.
Armas is a winner for the third straight year, despite having
played in only 16 of the Fire's 32 regular-season games. "It's an
honor to be chosen, but my goal is to make it a short night," he
says while Justine adjusts his tie. "We'll sit down, and my leg
will get swollen, and I'll worry about it."
No matter. Armas is too busy thinking about the game to mind the
dinner much. Though Chicago has the most talented roster in MLS,
this season it has suffered a series of injuries to key players,
and coach Bob Bradley has done a masterly job of steering his
team to a combined 21-11-6 record for the regular season and
playoffs. "To get to this point shows a lot of character," Armas
says. "I'm proud of this team, no matter what happens tomorrow."
Sunday, October 15
From the opening sequence of the MLS title game, when Armas
springs Peter Nowak free with a header only to have Nowak stumble
in front of the goal, the Fire dominates the Wizards in every
aspect but one. Scoring. In the 11th minute K.C.'s Chris Klein
eludes Armas as he churns up the right side and serves a cross
into the penalty box. The ball ricochets off the Fire's Marsch to
Wizards striker Miklos Molnar, who pushes home the gift goal.
"Klein poked it by me, and he did well to put it in the box, but
we had numbers there," Armas says later, shaking his head. "I was
thinking, Be patient. We'll get more chances, score a few goals."
The chances come. The goals do not. The Fire hits the woodwork
twice, once when Gutierrez doinks the crossbar from three yards
out. Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola parries another 10 shots, and
K.C. raises the silver trophy as the 2000 MLS champion. "So we
had a lot of chances? So we dominated? Big deal," Armas says in
the crypt-quiet Chicago locker room. "No point in saying what we
could have done. We didn't do it. That's reality."
So is this: After surviving one of the most intense weeks in the
history of U.S. soccer, Armas still has one more game to play,
this Saturday in Chicago against the Miami Fusion. It's the final
of the U.S. Open Cup, a 154-team knockout competition that
included all the MLS clubs plus squads from three other
professional and amateur leagues. In other words, the Fire may
have lost a championship on Sunday, but it can still finish the
season with a big, shiny trophy.
We told you this sport was unlike any other, didn't we?
"Our playmakers wouldn't do crap without him."