PORTLAND, Ore. -- If it looked like it was drawn up on the chalkboard, it’s because it was. Sort of.
The goal the Portland Timbers crafted in the first half of Friday’s U.S. Open Cup victory over the LA Galaxy – the only score in the team’s 1-0, Round of 16 victory at Providence Park – was one the team knew could come from their new look.
Samuel Armenteros, starting at forward with Fanendo Adi for the first time this season, ran across the defense, pulling LA left-center back Jørgen Skjelvik. Standing on the ball closer to the center line, right back Zarek Valentin drilled a ball into the vacated space, right to the heels of a moving Adi. With his first touch, the Nigerian targetman played back toward the middle of the box, into the space he just left, where Sebastián Blanco waited to convert the night’s decisive goal.
“We did it in training,” Adi said, about the movement that produced Friday’s goal. “We talked a lot about that in training, on Wednesday and Thursday. We tried to play that way.
“I knew what [Armenteros] was going to do, and he knew I was going to fall into that spot … It was automatic. We knew each other, we understood each other, and we knew the ball was going to come into that place.”
More than inspiration, Blanco’s goal was a factor of preparation, surprising given the team had not played a two-striker formation before, this season. Throughout the campaign -- be it in a 4-2-3-1 or the newer, more commonly used 4-3-2-1 -- the Timbers had played one-fronts, formations that precluded using Adi and Armenteros in tandem.
Friday’s 4-3-1-2 shape had been used in preseason, but those February sessions in the Tuscon, Arizona, sun seem more distant than four months ago.
“We wanted to try something a little bit different today due to the fact that we wanted to get a little bit of rest for Diego (Valeri),” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese explained after the match, about his choice of formation. Valeri, MLS’ reigning Most Valuable Player and the club's leading goalscorer this season, was omitted from the team’s gameday roster, leaving Blanco to operate in the creator’s role ahead of three central midfielders.
“We decided to go with a diamond, with two strikers, and it worked well,” Savarese continued. “I thought the more minutes that passed, during the match, up front, [the forwards] were getting better. They were starting to understand each other a little bit more.”
At no point was that more evident than on the team’s 30th minute goal, but even before that sequence, the Timbers’ intent was clear. Adi, a traditional target man, served as a focal point, waging aerial battles with Galaxy defenders Michael Ciani and Skjelvik while also playing on balls to feet, as he did on the goal. That target gave Armenteros and Blanco a clear point of reference, allowing them to produce nine shots with the health of Adi’s work.
“I thought that it built up more and more,” Savarese said, about the team’s effectiveness with Adi as a fulcrum. “I don’t think it was fluid, in the beginning, but I saw it building more and more through the match, because we did have space in the wide areas to be able to put balls in.
“[The Galaxy] realized that, in the second half. That’s why they changed to a 4-4-2 (formation). But then we found a little more space in the middle. So, I thought the combination with Adi, playing to him right away, with Armenteros moving around him, it was good during the time we were able to do more in the first half.”
In front of a fanbase that has been curious about an Adi-Armenteros pairing since the latter was acquired this winter, Friday’s result may mean more than punching a ticket to the Open Cup’s quarterfinals. It may mean a glimpse of whether the team's top two forwards, whose skills complement each other so well, can develop into a regular tandem.
“It’s just a way we need to practice more if we’re going to play that way moving forward,” Adi offered, a verdict for the formation’s first runout. Whether we’ll see the 4-3-1-2 in league play may come down to how that practice goes.