For those that have followed his managerial career, the idea that anyone wouldn't know what Giovani Savarese is all about borders on absurdity. After all, this is Gio we are talking about: a man who started his coaching career with the New York Cosmos just five short years ago, winning a whopping three NASL championships in four title game appearances.
But you would be excused if you weren’t familiar with that story. After all, the lasting memory of Savarese for most MLS fans starts and ends with his exploits as player, the dynamic attacking marauder who won the hearts of MetroStars fans in the founding years of the league.
Since his time in MLS, Savarese has become one of the hottest coaching commodities in North America, flirting with MLS a couple of times in past years before officially joining the Portland Timbers as manager on Monday. He's earned that distinction with more than just a cabinet of trophies and a winning record.
What makes Savarese so special? Let's dig in:
Every Game Is a Final
Savarese is a notoriously passionate competitor. In fact, he encapsulates that attribute with a mantra that Portland Timbers fans should grow used to hearing on a week-to-week basis:
“Every game is a final.”
It isn’t just a saying for Savarese, but a way of life. He treats each individual week of training with singular focus on the opponent at hand, rarely giving a breath to obstacles beyond the weekend. His competitive nature is infectious and reflects on the rest of his roster. The dogged work ethic and determination of his sides throughout the years earned his team the nickname “Cardiac Cosmos,” because they will always fight you to the death – or give you a heart attack trying.
Savarese defers to a handful of formations. The 4-2-3-1 has featured prominently throughout his career. He also tinkered with a 4-1-4-1 and other modified 4-3-3 formations.
But Savarese’s starting point is hardly where he finishes a match off. Over the course of 90 minutes, Savarese will introduce a series of looks to find the right formula to dissect an opponent. In short: he is not married to a single look.
His teams consistently feature a disciplined defensive core that is supplemented by a rapidly interchanging attack. He offers freedom and creative space to his front four attackers and preaches a ground-based offense, with quick touches on the ball and an emphasis on two-way play.
And as a man-manager, just as with his tactics, Savarese isn’t committed to a single player at any one position. He takes training sessions very seriously and will reward hard training with in-match minutes. That, in turn, allows him to exhaust any option he sees fit on his bench – while keeping his periphery talents on their toes.
An Experienced, Proven Man-Manager
But does success with personnel at the lower divisions necessarily translate to success at the top?
This is where Savarese’s experience sets him apart. During his time with the Cosmos, Savarese managed the likes of Real Madrid legend Raul, Villarreal folk-hero Marcos Senna and Venezuelan icon Juan Arango. Despite his relative inexperience at the helm, Savarese made believers of each and every one of those legendary names, effectively deploying them within the construct of a modest roster.
And it isn’t just the legends he has had success with. His roster has been littered with former MLSers like Carlos Mendes, Hunter Freeman, Jairo Arrietta and Adam Moffat, European standouts, US national team prospects and of course, veteran American journeymen. In each instance, Savarese found the right buttons to push to motivate and focus his players.
In short, whether they are a global star or an American nomad, Savarese has proven more than capable of bringing out the very best in the players he is given.
Here is where Portland Timbers fans may see a bonus in Savarese’s signing. The Cosmos have all but completely leaned on Gio’s vast global network of contacts and associates to build out their teams – a commodity Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson would be wise to tap into.
Over the years, Savarese has managed to lure players from places like Norway, Africa, South America and Spain with relative regularity. He also spearheaded the ambitious signings of Raul, Marcos Senna and Juan Arango, personally courting each player.
Domestically, he knows the soccer pyramid from top to bottom, with an intimate knowledge of the lower leagues. And if you are worried about his familiarity with MLS, consider this: he was also a league commentator for ESPN Deportes.
MLS: The Proving Ground
“So if Gio is so great, why haven’t any MLS teams taken a flyer on him?”
Well, they have – but intending and doing are two vastly different things! Just last winter, Minnesota United and the Houston Dynamo were very interested in signing the Cosmos boss. However, his services came with a price. The Cosmos would not allow their coach to leave unless a transfer fee was involved. According to some reports, that fee was of the seven-figure variety, though sources I’ve spoken to have consistently said it was in the mid-six-figure range.
And while a deal could not be agreed upon, the interest in a jump to MLS was mutual. Savarese dominated the lower league landscape for the better part of a half decade. Major League Soccer represents the next logical challenge in his coaching career.