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 f�tbol 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 months 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 win."
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."