Stejskal: Samuel Armenteros emerges from "nightmare" to spark the Timbers

Six months after he finished up a dream season, Portland Timbers striker Samuel Armenteros found himself in the middle of a waking nightmare.

After dominating the Dutch league with 19 goals in just 29 league appearances for Heracles FC in the 2016-17 campaign, the Swede signed a three-year deal with newly-promoted Italian Serie A side Benevento on the final day of last summer’s transfer window.

Though the initial offer came in just 10 hours before the window closed, Armenteros was comfortable with his quick decision. After all, the move seemed like the logical next step in what looked like a budding European career. He was playing some of the best soccer of his life; it was natural that he should be rewarded with a big-time contract in a big-time league. The club was small, sure, but he’d be a major piece of the puzzle at Benevento.

At least that’s what he thought. Reality turned out rather different.

Things went south for Armenteros almost as soon as he arrived in Italy. Despite being one of the club’s biggest-ever signings, he felt like Benevento’s coach didn’t even know who he was at his first day of training. That unwelcome feeling extended into the season, which Benevento started in historically awful fashion. They lost their first 14 Serie A matches, scoring just six goals in the process. They didn’t record their first league win until Dec. 30, more than four months into the season.

The team was astonishingly bad, but Armenteros couldn’t get on the field. He played just nine league matches for Benevento, only started five times and played all 90 minutes just once. After three games, he started to think he’d made a terrible move. After a couple of months, he was irreversibly convinced. He needed to leave in the January window.

Armenteros and his agent began searching for a new home, and quickly found interest back in Holland. It looked like he’d found an escape when a permanent transfer to Dutch club Utrecht was agreed to in January, but a technicality got in the way.

Before he moved to Benevento in August, Armenteros played 45 minutes with Heracles’ reserve team in a rehab assignment. The game counted as an official match, meaning that Armenteros had been registered for two teams in the 2017-18 season. FIFA bars players from playing for three teams in one such season, but the organization allows them to move to a third team if that team plays on a different calendar than the previous two clubs. Armenteros couldn’t move to another team on the European calendar, but he could move to a league that, like MLS, plays from spring to fall.

“It was a nightmare, it was a complete nightmare,” Armenteros told over the phone in late May. “I basically spent a month, all of January, doing nothing, not training with the team, not being able to leave and I felt pretty much like a prisoner. I was just owned by the situation.”

Armenteros appealed FIFA’s decision to block his signing with Utrecht, but the governing body was slow to make a ruling. It was in that intermediate period when the Timbers first made their approach.

After struggling through large stretches of Designated Player striker Fanendo Adi’s long injury absence in 2017, Portland were looking to spend some of the offseason influx of discretionary Targeted Allocation Money on another forward. Head scout Ned Grabavoy identified Armenteros as a player who might be looking for a way out of a bad situation, and, after the technical staff decided to pursue him over two strikers in La Liga, GM Gavin Wilkinson contacted his agent. They were interested. Both sides did their due diligence and began hammering out terms, with Benevento agreeing in February to send Armenteros on a season-long loan Portland, who agreed to pay the entirety of his 2018 salary.

“We have a DP forward that we love, so this was about managing that and looking at the personality of the player, looking at the profile of the player in regards to can he offer us a different look, can he pair with Adi,” said Wilkinson. “We didn’t want two target forwards. We wanted somebody that could play off a target forward, somebody that could create their own chances, somebody that had a different speed, different individual qualities on the ball and that’s where we came out to Armenteros.”

Portland found their striker and Armenteros’ nightmare was over. His odyssey, however, was far from finished. The 26-year-old was so eager to leave Benevento that he’d been packed for a full week before the Timbers deal was finalized. It was nearly midnight local time when the loan paperwork finally came through, but the late hour didn’t stop Armenteros from racing out of southern Italy. He threw his bags in his car, drove to the club’s offices, signed off on the deal and immediately hit the road for the 20-hour drive to Amsterdam, where he dropped his car at his home in the city. Two days later, he was on a plane to Portland to start life as a Timber.

“It was a perfect chance for me at that time. At that time, I felt like this is what I needed, so it was actually pretty much a no-brainer to just to get out of there, get to Portland and find my joy again,” said Armenteros. “From a soccer standpoint, even from a social standpoint, just being in a place where you can speak the language, you can go to a restaurant and sit down and have a conversation with a random person, just doing things like that – it’s all been really nice.”

He had a successful preseason, but playing time was scarce to start the year. Armenteros started just two of the Timbers’ first 10 matches as he worked toward full fitness, with Adi emerging as the regular lone striker in head coach Giovanni Savarese’s 4-3-2-1 formation. He was a regular sub, but he didn’t get on the scoresheet until May 13, when he provided the assist on Sebastian Blanco’s goal in Portland’s 1-0 win against Seattle. He scored his first goal a week later, finishing a 60-yard run by smashing a 25-yarder inside the far post then racing into the crowd to celebrate with the Timbers’ Army to give Portland a memorable 2-1 victory against LAFC.

He picked up right where he left off against Colorado, scoring two goals – including this Dennis Bergkamp-esque effort – to lead the Timbers to a 3-2 win on May 26.

“He’s been a game changer,” said Savarese. “He’s adapted really well with the group. Coming into the games, he’s given what we need him to give us and he’s been very important in those games for us to get the wins that we need. Either coming from the bench or, in Colorado, starting, he’s been that spark for us to be able to get in the game. He’s been very positive for us.”

The Rapids game was his first start since April 8, and he started again in a 1-1 tie with the LA Galaxy on June 2 before returning to the bench as Adi returned to the starting XI for Portland's last game before the World Cup break, a 0-0 draw against Sporting KC on June 9. On Sunday he and the Timbers will take their eight-match unbeaten run to Atlanta for a nationally televised match (4:30 pm ET | FOX - full TV & streaming info).

Regularly leaving one of Armenteros and Adi out of the XI could create a tricky situation for the Timbers, but the club will gladly take it. Savarese and Wilkinson made sure to note that one of the reasons they signed Armenteros was because they think he can play with Adi, and both said they expect Portland to start both strikers together at certain points this season.

Wilkinson went as far to say that the club’s thought process is to keep both forwards around past this season. Adi has a guaranteed deal for “several more years” and the Timbers have a purchase option to permanently acquire Armenteros from Benevento after 2018. The fee would be significant, but Wilkinson said it wouldn’t be so high as to force the Timbers to use a DP spot on Armenteros.

It’s still early, but it sounds like Armenteros wouldn’t mind sticking around, either. He’s enjoyed his time with the Timbers, is happy with how he’s playing and likes life in Oregon. Portland are certainly enjoying having him around, too, and he picked up two straight AT&T Goal of the Week awards while scoring three goals in the Timbers' scintillating spring run. And though it’s not where he thought he’d be last summer, but Portland is starting to feel like home for Armenteros. After his nightmare stint in Italy, that means a lot. 

“I’m so much better now, both on and off the field. Everything has gone well,” he said. “Being able to provide important moves on the field to help my team, that helps a lot. And with the situation, knowing that I’m on loan, I want to do as good as I can so that I can make a permanent move because I’m not really looking to come back to the situation I was already in in Italy. I’m happiest when I play and when I do good. I’ve been here now for three months, you can never say anything about the future because I have obligations, I have two years left on my contract in Italy, but hopefully I will do well enough that they will keep me here.”