Today's the day Chris Armas
hangs it up. At age 35, sent to the sidelines by a troublesome hip and the wear and tear of a dozen pro seasons, the MLS prototypical holding midfielder played 264 regular season games and 37 more
in the playoffs with a zeal and hunger seemingly unaffected by fatigue, weather or circumstance. He'll walk away reluctantly, happy and sad, as well he should. Nobody ever wore the colors of
his club and country more humbly yet as proudly as did Armas. He played in four MLS Cups and helped the Fire, which he joined after two seasons in Los Angeles, win a league title and four U.S.
I first saw him play in person at the Rose Bowl, for the Galaxy against D.C. United on the first Sunday in May, 1996. Some superb attacking players (Marco
and Mauricio Cienfuegos
, to name two) and famous names (Jorge Campos, John Harkes
, referee Arturo Angeles
) were on display in
brilliant sunshine but I couldn't stop watching the shortish yet powerful, aggressive yet smart, Galaxy No. 14 thwart D.C. time and time again with strong tackles, clever interceptions, and
flat-out persistence. He was relentless, confident, tough. I said to myself, "Armas, good player."
I knew the name from the college All-America lists, but since Adelphi
didn't come out west very often, that's about all I knew aside from some high praise from his coach, Bob Montgomery
, and one or two coaches whose teams had played
against him. As he bounded up and back, side to side, I mentioned to a few colleagues in the press box how impressed I was.
I didn't get much assent in return. There were far
more spectacular and compelling elements to be savored. Eduardo Hurtado
bulled his way through the D.C. defense, Cienfuegos pulled the strings, Cobi Jones
the flanks, and Etcheverry and Harkes struggled to link their creaky back line with a mix-and-match forward duo of Raul Diaz Arce
and Steve Rammel
. More than
20,000 fans roared as Galaxy pounded out a 3-1 win.
Nobody knew at the time that 5 ½ months later, these same two teams would meet in a Foxboro Stadium being lashed by a
fierce nor'easter to decide the inaugural MLS champion. Everybody remembers Eddie Pope
's dramatic overtime winner and the 3-2 final scoreline that left the Galaxy bitterly
stunned; Armas can never forget how it all fell apart after he'd scored in the 56th minute for a 2-0 Galaxy lead.
His accomplishments and disappointments are well chronicled,
but no biography or profile can capture the admiration and respect he's earned, or the sympathy and disbelief that such a stalwart would be knocked out of three major competitions - the 2000
Olympics and the 2002 and 2006 World Cups - by injury.
If you ask him, he'd tell you truthfully and passionately how proud he was to represent his country 66 times.
"I am lucky, I really am," he once said. "Not everything is meant to be, and I believe things happen for a reason, even if we don't know what that reason is. There are a lot
of guys who never get the chance."
In September, knowing it was about to end yet still clinging to a vestige of hope, he said, "My reasons to retire were never frustration
with the players, with the team, with the organization. If I could play another three years I would. Physically, my body is hurting. If [Zinedine] Zidane came to the team tomorrow, of course
I'd want to play. My body is the issue. My desire to play would be the same.
"I want to be able to play and contribute every day in practice and every day in the games,
not just half you-know-what. I love the concept of the team and honestly, I love the preseason. This is what I've known for the past 12, 14 years, whatever it is, two years with the Rough
Riders and then MLS. It's hard enough to walk away. I don't like the thought of it, at all. I almost wish I didn't love it so much, but I do.
"The motivation level
is still there. The motivation to win and to compete has gotten stronger as my career has gone on. It hasn't faded. You think, 'Isn't that supposed to go away?' Then you
wouldn't feel so bad about walking away.
"If I could do it now, success makes it even harder. But at the end of the day it's what it's going to be."