The Captain is Inducted into The Ring of Fire

Chris Armas

Through the Chicago Fire’s first decade, the MLS team was led on the field by one of two men, former Poland National Team Captain Piotr Nowak through the team’s first five seasons and former United States National Team Captain Chris Armas through its second five.  Piotr was on hand last Thursday night, along with fellow Ring of Fire members Frank Klopas, Bob Bradley and me, to welcome Chris into the team’s hall of fame.

Chris is now the director of coaching with the Massapequa Soccer Club, lives on Long Island with his wife, Justine, and two sons, Christopher and Aleksei.  Some day, I would love to see him back in MLS instilling his values and knowledge into the next generation of MLS players.  He played a dozen years in MLS, ten with the Fire and served as an assistant coach to Denis Hamlett in 2008.  And now, he is rightfully in The Ring of Fire.

The “Ring of Fire” honors those who made the Chicago Fire a successful organization and who displayed the qualities the Fire embodies: leadership, dedication and integrity. The Fire’s unique Hall of Fame is the first created by a Major League Soccer club.  It began in 2003, when I chose Piotr to become the inaugural member.

Ring of Fire Members Bob Bradley and Chris Armas

Ring of Fire Members Bob Bradley and Chris Armas

Since then, only active members vote on the next inductee. Piotr chose Chicago native Frank Klopas in 2004 and former Fire defender Lubos Kubik was selected in 2005.  The award went full circle in 2006 with my induction and current US National Team Head Coach Bob Bradley joined us in 2007.  Last year, the group selected Fire supporters Dan Parry and Brandon Kitchens who both died tragically young after more than a decade each of passionate Fire support and living the Fire’s ideals of integrity, leadership and dedication in public service.  Fire ownership overruled the 2008 selection, however, but did honor Dan and Brandon in a memorial wall of honor in Toyota Park’s northwest corner.

The Fire then instituted a policy of team affirmation of future Ring of Fire selections beginning with Chris’ selection this year.  A large jersey banner with each Ring of Fire member’s name is hung on the east side of Toyota Park.

Chris’ selection this year was unanimous as he personified not only the characteristics of the Ring of Fire – leadership, integrity and dedication, but also the Fire’s motto of “Tradition, Honor and Passion”. The Fire always took great pride in doing things the right way and no one in the organization did a better job than the Long Island native whose strong work ethic appealed to the Fire fans’ midwestern values.

Chris was a Division II All-American at Adelphi University.  He managed to catch the eye of original Los Angeles Galaxy coach Lothar Osiander and became a vital cog in the Galaxy’s success in MLS’ first two seasons.

Bob Bradley coveted Chris, but the Galaxy protected him and instead exposed two players they knew would refuse to relocate, defender Danny Peña and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, thinking we wouldn’t select them.  We called the Galaxy’s bluff, though and picked both in order to hold them hostage for Chris.  When I called the players to notify them of their new team, Hartman was gracious and respectfully asked me to trade him back to LA.  Peña sounded a bit panicky and used a version of the “The dog ate my homework” excuse.  He actually said to me, “Ummm, yeah…I can’t move to Chicago.  You see…uh….I have a dog.  It’s a big dog and I can’t move it to Chicago.”  I tried to calm Danny, by letting him know that it’s OK, because Chicago allows dogs, too.

Chris Armas addressing the crowd

It took more than 2 1/2 months, but on January 27, 1998 the Galaxy finally agreed to trade Chris to the Fire for Peña and Hartman under one important condition…we HAD to take Jorge Campos (and give them one of our international allocations, which they used for Carlos Hermosillo).  When the trade was announced, everyone focused on the arrival of the flamboyant Mexico National Team goalkeeper, but it was the acquisition of the soft spoken, hard working defensive midfielder that made Bob a very happy man that day.

His tenacity in the midfield was relied upon by the Fire to stop opponents’ playmakers such as Marco Etcheverry, Preki, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Carlos Valderrama.  While respected among his teammates for his ability to create counterattacks quickly with a deft pass after a takeaway, it was his destroyer skills that made him famous.  Chris performed the same attack busting duties for the U.S. National Team and guided them to the 2002 World Cup where he was forced to watch from home due to a right knee ACL tear just a few weeks prior to the World Cup.  Sadly, a sprained left MCL suffered just prior to the Sydney Olympics prevented him from representing his nation in the summer games two years earlier.  Chris’ chin up spirit in those situations characterize him and inspired others.

Before I get to other people’s thoughts on Chris, i will share a couple memories of my own.  There was a period of a couple years when i seemingly knew in advance the outcome of Fire games.  I would surreptitiously share the information with Chris in the locker room or on the field beforehand.  He began to ask me every game.  If I had the winning feeling, I would tell him and even give the score, which was eerily accurate for about two years.  If i was feeling a loss, I would simply tell Chris that I didn’t have the feeling that day.

Ring of Fire

Ring of Fire at Toyota Park

While I have many wonderful memories of Chris on the field, one of my favorites was off the field.  Chris made a surprise marriage proposal to Justine in the Soldier Field press box during the post-game laser light show after the Fire’s final 1998 regular season home game.  Chris told Justine that the press box had the best view of the laser show and it was so spectacular that he wanted to watch it with her.  He worked with the front office to have the lasers spell the proposal out in giant letters on the field:

“Justine,

Will you marry me?

Love,

Chris #14″

He was by Justine’s side in full uniform to present her with the ring when she stammered her shocked acceptance.

I’ve asked several of Chris’ coaches, teammates and fans to comment on what made Chris special and to add their own memories of the Fire’s number 14.  Here is what they said:

Bob Bradley, (former coach, currently the Head Coach of the US Men’s National Team)

Chris had the unique ability to be an example to all his teammates on how to act, compete, and win every day- while still being a person that everyone liked and respected.

Frank Klopas (former teammate, currently the Fire’s Technical Director)

Chris has great tactical awareness, good sense of positioning and the ability to regain possession of a lot of balls. He made life a lot easier for the offensive players on the team… Better than anyone else in the league- Chris KNEW his position, his strengths and his role.

Chris was traded to Chicago from LA before my trade came through from Columbus. He already had been wearing the # 14. That had typically been the number I had worn throughout my career. The first day of pre-season Chris came up to me – I am sure out of respect; I am much older than Chris- he offered to give up 14 which he had also worn. This speaks volumes to his character both on and off the field. At that moment I knew I was dealing with a class act.

Lubos Kubik (former teammate, currently the sport manager for Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic)

Chris Armas was a great player, the fighter on the field, with a wide coverage of the whole field. I enjoyed playing with him because he helped to make all other players better during the game. That is why I could attack.  Chris did my job in the back.

I remember that my first contact with the Fire was when I met Chris in Bradenton (in preseason in 1998). We lived together as a family there with Chris, Ritchie Kotschau, Peter Nowak. I realized then how good a guy he is as a person as well as a player.

Dave Sarachan (former coach, currently Associate Head Coach of the LA Galaxy)

What made Chris Armas special was his combined package of honesty, integrity, competitiveness and selflesness. He was as genuine a guy as you’ll find especially in competitive pro sports where ego, money and fame often get in the way of playing for the greater good of the team. I couldn’t imagine a greater role model day in and day out within a team concept.

Of all of my experiences having Chris as my Captain in Chicago there was none greater than his winning goal in Soldier Field in 2003 when we beat New England to win the Eastern Conference Championship and sent us to MLS Cup ’03. What made this so special was that Chris had been so robbed of being a part of our 2002 World Cup Team due to his knee injury and the mountain that he had to climb to enable himself to get back to top playing level. His work and desire to help himself and our team be the very best that we could be was rewrded on that day. Just look at the pure joy in his face after the goal is scored- all of it, 100% of it was joy for the team and not for himself. That’s Chris Armas.

Denis Hamlett (former coach, current Fire Head Coach)

On and off the field Chris is a true professional; he embodies commitment and dedication.  One of my top memories of Chris is during the 2003 conference final against New England.  This was Chris’ first season back after his second ACL surgery.  He set-up the winning goal and was running around the field in celebration.

Logan Pause (former teammate, current Fire player)

Take away his amazing accolades of being a National Team regular, winning an MLS Cup and his countless All-Star years, the thing that makes him different from everyone else is his character.  Chris is an unbelievable person and he has an infectious personality.  He is a great friend, father and teammate.  I was so fortunate to have the privilege to play with him and to learn from him.  I have never played with a competitor and professional like Chris in my entire career.

The interesting thing about trying to relate a memory of Chris is that there is no ONE memory or story that comes to mind.  Towards the end of Chris’ career I roomed with him on the road, and there were no DULL moments.  I developed a strong friendship with him and remain good friends to this day.  However, my favorite memories were taking the field with him.  When you looked over and saw Chris Armas standing next to you, you know you had a good chance to win the game.  Every game and practice with Chris is an HONOR.

Diego Gutierrez (former teammate, now retired)

Chris was a special type of player for many reasons.  One of the many was because he seldom spoke out to correct his peers… rather he led the way by excelling and making sure he showed how to do it right, how to be a pro.  He was certainly one of the hardest working players I ever had the honor to play with.  Often we use the term “honest” to describe a player that gives his all, recognizes mistakes, but works harder than most for the benefit of the team.  I think that Chris never shied away from the tough times or the tedious work, in fact, I think he thrived and enjoyed that aspect of the game.  He made his energy and concentracion infectious, so he made his teammates much better in every team he played.  Off the field he gave respect to everyone and treated everyone the same.  He was a fantastic asset that only got better with age.

There are so many stories about Chris, it’s hard to come up with a specific one.  It’s no secret that Chris has been one of the more competitive players to ever wear the Fire uniform.  I am quite competitive as well, so when CJ, Chris and I roomed together on a preseason trip, we would find or make up any game imaginable for us to compete in.  One of these games involved hitting the same exact spot on a wall with a tennis ball from about 15 feet away.  If he lost, it was best of three.  If he lost those, it was best of five.  Best of seven, nine, etc.  I think we must have played the game for several hours until he got his fix of victory.  He always addressed everything with the same competitive spirit, which is one of the reasons why he became one of the best competitors to not only play for the Fire, but also MLS and the US National Team.  Off the field, our families have always been and to this day remain very close, so there are countless stories from Chris that those close to him will always cherish.

Jesse Marsch (Former teammate, now Chivas USA player)

Aside from his obvious abilities on the field, there were 3 things that made Chris very different and special from all the other players with which I have played.

First, he almost always put himself last within the context of the team.  He tried to think of other people and their state of mind and situations when leading the team.  There were often times where he would call a players only meeting to try and address the mentality of the team and make sure that everyone had a common purpose in mind.  This coupled with a lot of little conversations he would have with individuals, including myself, seemed to invest each person in the team and in Chris. 

Another way he exemplified his selflessness was how he dealt with playing for both the national team and the Chicago Fire.  Every player I have ever played with, that has been fortunate enough to represent their national team, has gone through moments of indifference toward their club team.  Chris was the only exception.  He told very few national team stories, never named dropped big time players, and made everyone feel that he put everything into the Fire at all times.  I’m sure he was the same way when he was with the US team.  He was a great professional.

Second, he had the ability to understand and relate with others, thus creating relationships where people believed in him as both a player and a person.  Those who watched him play were able to see how he helped make the players around him better.  That was actually more an extension of his personality than his playing style.  He was good with people, not in a corny dorky way, but in a funny charismatic manner.  The best teammates and leaders that I have ever played with all made everyone want to be better, and this was one of Chris’ major qualities.

Last, Chris hated to lose more than any human being I have ever known…and he rarely did.

Personal stories abound in my mind when I think of Chris, but I will keep them personal.  However, my favorite on the field recollection of Chris is the conference final in 2003 against New England.  It was Chris’ best game of his career in my eyes, and he scored the game winner in overtime, back in the golden goal days.  He was running past players on both teams, making play after play.  We probably should have won that game 10 times over in regular time.  Chris literally willed us to win and the look on his face when he scored the winner was the essence of Chris.  

Ben Burton (Chairman of Section 8 Chicago, the Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association)

I was first impressed by Chris before he ever even played for the Chicago Fire.  My first memories of him in relation to the Fire were when the Fire drafted Kevin Hartman in the expansion draft and Hartman refused to play for us.  Even if Chris didn’t want to make the move he showed more class than Hartman with his willingness to accept it.   That attitude is really important in a Chicago team.  It speaks to teamwork and integrity, as well as the strength to do whatever needs to be done regardless of your own personal needs.  In the end, that attitude is exactly what made him special for the Chicago Fire.  He was selfless, dedicated and gave everything necessary to win.

My favorite memory of Chris is actually a memory about CarlosValderrama.  The Chicago Fire are the only team Valderrama never had an assist against.  Thank you Chris!

The above comments are all high praise from people who know Chris.

For me, Chris is defined by this anonymous quote:

“Everyone tries to define this thing called Character. It’s not hard. Character is doing what’s right when nobody’s looking.”

Chris does what’s right when people are looking and when they’re not.

Here is Chris’ acceptance speech at his induction into the Ring of Fire last week.

Peter Wilt writes for Pitch Invasion weekly.

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