Technically, MLS is currently bereft of Italian head coaches, that distinctive class of manager that has brought great innovation and style to the beautiful game over the decades. And the land that invented catenaccio might be the best place to find the types who fully appreciate a goalless draw like the one that unfolded at Providence Park on Sunday evening.
As they contemplate the task of navigating a path past Sporting Kansas City at forbidding Children’s Mercy Park on Thursday, it’s a good thing for the Portland Timbers that their head coach is Azzurri at heart.
Though he wore Vinotinto in his own international career, Giovanni Savarese is the proud son of Italian immigrants to Venezuela. After his turn as a MetroStars cult hero, he spent a chunk of his post-MLS playing days in Italy, where he surely learned plenty about the game’s finer points that has served him well in a managerial career marked by sturdy defenses, careful tactics and savvy big-game performances with both the Timbers and New York Cosmos, where won three NASL championships from 2013-17.
Roared on by their vocal home support, Portland put Sporting on the back foot in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Championship, and did not fail to generate danger in the attacking third. Alas for them, the attacking trident of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse lacked the coldbloodedness in front of the net that has powered their upstart playoff run to this point, and they failed to convert the one chance that would’ve improved their MLS Cup prospects enormously. (Credit some sterling emergency defending by the away side as well.)
So SKC still look like destiny’s child as they head home knowing that a victory of any sort at their CM Park stronghold, where the forecast for Thursday includes precipitation and subfreezing temperatures, will see them through.
Given Sporting’s propensity for wrestling away possession and dictating the tone in those friendly confines, the visitors from the Rose City will probably have to dig in for long periods of bus-parking, back-foot-defending, rhythm-killing and the like. I suspect they’ll have to do so without the services of Larrys Mabiala, the influential center back forced off the pitch by injury just 18 minutes into Leg 1, and they really need to find the net against an opponent that’s limited them to just one goal in five meetings over the past two years.
That said, if anyone can muster the spirit and tactics required to weather the storm, muck things up and unsettle KC, it’s Savarese and his Timbers.
“We were a little bit unlucky, I feel, in this match, but the important part is that we didn’t concede,” said Savarese on Sunday, and that’s a soundbyte worth noting.
Thanks to the away-goals rule, Portland can now win this series with a scoring draw, and they’re well-built to soak up pressure and strike against the run of play. Along those lines, here’s another postgame quote to tuck in your back pocket for Thursday, from Sporting defender Ike Opara.
“We’ve got to be locked in,” the cerebral center back told MLSsoccer.com’s Susannah Collins. “They leave some guys high and their counter’s really good.”
Considering what he’s achieved in less than 12 months in Portland, the #RCTID faithful are well within reason to believe that Savarese can cook up the winning recipe for Leg 2, or at the very least give his team a puncher’s chance to spring an upset.
And while MLS awards voters left him off the Coach of the Year shortlist – instead plucking for SKC’s Peter Vermes as well as Atlanta’s Tata Martino and LAFC builder Bob Bradley – there’s plenty to look forward to as the Gio era takes shape in Stumptown, regardless of what transpires later this week.