Samuel Armenteros’ four-game ascent may be one of the more remarkable in Portland Timbers’ history.
Four games ago, he came off the bench in San Jose to draw a foul against the Earthquakes, one that led to the game’s winning goal–a wonderstrike free kick from Diego Valeri. A week later, he played the pass to Sebastián Blanco that helped take a 1-0 derby victory over Seattle Sounders FC only to top that feat, a week later, with an MLS Goal of the Week effort that delivered three points against Los Angeles FC.
Yet on Saturday, somehow, the Timbers’ Swedish international took his game to another level. In the process, he rewarded Giovanni Savarese for his start since April 8, scoring two first-half goals and producing another Goal-of-the-Week-worthy effort in the Timbers’ 3-2 win against the Colorado Rapids.
“It was just a spontaneous thing – intuition, I guess,” Armenteros said, after the game, one which may be remembered as the striker’s true Portland coming out party. “You have that sometimes, as a player. It’s just what you feel, what comes to your mind, then and there. You don’t think about it. It just happens. It played out well.”
Colorado defender Danny Wilson had already tempted a red card earlier in the half, grabbing and bringing down Armenteros on a similar play five minutes before. Carrying that yellow card, the former Rangers and Liverpool center back couldn’t resort to the same tactic, giving Armenteros the room he needed to put Wilson on a proverbial poster. Come halftime, Wilson had been pulled, with Armenteros having burned him again in the 38th minute for what would, until the Rapids' consolation in the 97th minute, looked like another game-winning goal.
Even after Axel Sjoberg came on for Colorado, though, the Timbers’ first MLS hat trick felt within reach, with Armenteros coming close to a third goal on numerous occasions. The last of those – in the 75th minute, moments before being subbed off – left Armenteros regretting his opportunities lost.
“As a striker, and me having missed that last chance I had before I got subbed, I expect more of myself than that,” he said, unironically, having been put on goal from near the center line only to let Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard cut down his angles. “It was a long run, I started cramping at half-field. It was a tough finish, but I could have made it easier for my team by making it 4-1.”
It was all part of a night that, beneath the highlights and goals, was defined by the Rapids’ ill-advised approach. From the game’s first moments, it was clear that Anthony Hudson intended to use two of his three center backs to man-mark the Timbers’ best creators, Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco. That started a chain of decisions that eventually allowed Armenteros to spend the first half attacking Wilson.
“As soon as we saw they were being marked man-to-man,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese explained, “we told Valeri and Blanco to make runs short, to create space in front (of them). That [allowed] Armenteros to be one-against-one (against Wilson), and that way we could take advantage.
“We tried to play that ball in behind, and that’s how the first goal came, because Armenteros was man-to-man in the last area.”
In that way, Saturday’s result was as much a testimony to Savarese’s performance as Armenteros’. In previous weeks, Colorado showed elements of this man-marking approach, and although the Rapids took their commitment to an all-new, somewhat anachronistic level on Saturday, Savarese may have seen the potential for Armenteros to thrive. While there would have been logic to asking the bigger, more physical Fanendo Adi to occupy most of Colorado’s central defense, Savarese employed his quicker option, somebody who would thrive when isolated against Colorado’s rearguards.
“It was an awkward style of opponent, we faced today,” Armenteros said. “It took some getting used to. We did it quite well in the first half – at least, toward the end of the first half – to control and take back the lead that we gave away.”
That control helped deliver Portland’s second win in 11 all-time visits to the Rapids, as well as pushed the team’s winning streak to six, tied for the second-longest since Major League Soccer abandoned the tie-breaking shootout in 2000. And with a player like Armenteros emerging as a new, explosive option, it’s tempting to imagine what added dimensions the Timbers could leverage from this point forward.
“The difference is getting more confidence,” Armenteros explained, of his four-game run, “getting more minutes, getting accustomed to everything more …
“I’ve earned my minutes. I’ve been working hard in practice, and I took it from there. I started with a few minutes, a couple of minutes: five, to 10, to 15. And then being able, over the last four games, help my team pull off four out of the last six wins, it feels amazing.”
The key to keeping that amazing feeling going, though, according to Valeri, will be moving on, and doing so as quickly as possible.
“Don’t think about the past. That’s key,” Valeri explained, about how Portland can keep their run going. “Think about the next game, prepare well, perform in the 90 minutes, and improve things to make us better.”
Over the last month, on an individual level, that’s exactly what Armenteros has done, and as result, he and his team produced a night to remember. And if that focus persists, the Timbers should have more memorable nights to come. WIth Armenteros’ countryman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and his LA Galaxy), next on the agenda next Saturday (2pm PT, ESPN2), Portland gets another chance to make memories seven days from now.