PORTLAND, Ore. – There were times on Saturday when the game looked too easy for Samuel Armenteros, even beyond his fifth and sixth goals of the 2018 Major League Soccer season.
The 44th-minute bicycle kick that went just wide of San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell’s left post. The 58th-minute scissor-kick shot that nearly got inside Tarbell’s right. The hesitation move that left Harold Cummings, just returned from the World Cup, ground bound in front of Providence Park’s North End. Make a list of the he-actually-tried-that-moments the Timbers’ starting striker attempted against the Earthquakes and you’re left with an inventory of a man taking his game to a new level.
“Easy? No. It’s not easy,” Armenteros said after the Portland Timbers’ 2-1 victory, their 13th game unbeaten in all competitions. “I always have to work hard, everyday, because I know when I’m training here, I’m always playing against good players, and they can help me and help the team.
“The idea of it being easy, that’s irrelevant. We want the team to improve, and I’m very happy to get two goals tonight and help the team.”
That help has been prolific, of late. During his first seven appearances for the Timbers, Armenteros failed to score, fighting for playing time as he was getting accustomed to a new team, league, and city. Since then, the 28-year-old Swede has scored six times in eight games, a run that has moved him even with Diego Valeri on top of the team’s goal-scoring chart.
“Just confidence, to tell you the truth,” Armenteros said, zeroing in on the core quality that’s fueled his run. “In the beginning it was a big transition, coming from there to here. I hadn’t been playing for a while (in Italy), so I hadn’t touched the ball in God knows how long until I got here. I had a couple of days, it feels like, before the season started …
“I’m a human being. For people just watching, I just kick the ball, you know what I mean? But there’s much going on in the mind when you’re moving. Family, friends alone. Searching for a house around it. When that all settled in, I began feeling better and better.”
The results have spoken for themselves. Since breaking through on May 19 against Los Angeles FC, Armenteros is averaging a goal every 73.5 minutes (441 minutes played). The league’s runaway goal-scoring leader, Atlanta’s Josef Martínez, has scored his 18 goals this season at a rate of one every 93 minutes (1,674 minutes played). Armenteros’ is a small sample, but within it, he’s been Josef Martínez, and then some.
“What has changed is that he now feels more ready,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “He is getting used to playing more, now.
“We have to remember that, coming from Italy, there was a long period where he didn’t play enough minutes. He had to get back into that playing mood, and feeling good about himself and the game. He showed some very good performances, but now we’re seeing that he is a lot more comfortable on the field, and I think that’s the reason why he looked very good today.”
Beyond Armenteros’ personal comfort level, there’s the comfort level that has to exist between teammates. Armenteros is a very different type of player than Fanendo Adi, the striker most Timbers are used to being at the top of the team’s formation. The movement we saw on the night’s first goal, when Armenteros immediately attacked San Jose’s right channel after an Earthquakes turnover, reflects a tendency players like Valeri and Sebastián Blanco have to learn. Now, after five months in the squad, the Timbers are figuring out how to get the most of out of their newest weapon.
“The chemistry [can be seen in] the whole team, and that’s why I’m really happy. It’s all about that.”
And, as Armenteros explained, when that chemistry is in place, he’s going to shine, even if much of the team’s improvement goes beyond his personal growth.
“It’s not about me,” he insisted. “When the team does better, the striker does better. You get up higher in the field, and that’s what I’m good at.
“I’m not the best defender, but I know what to do when I’m alone with the goalkeeper. That’s my strength, and I’ve been trying to help with the goals, lately.”
Thanks to his help, the Timbers have pushed their unbeaten streak to 13 in all competitions, with their points-per-game rate (1.81) giving them the third-best record in the Western Conference. Although those marks are sure to be tested next week, when Portland has two games (in two different competitions) in Los Angeles against LAFC, Armenteros’ form ensures that any slip from an opponent – any tendency to take the West’s fifth-place team lightly – can be punished more potentially than perhaps any Timbers MLS team has been capable of before.
Such is the improvement Armenteros has shown. Such is the path Portland continues to go down.