Miles Joseph and Gio Savarese go back – way, way back. Joseph was not only Savarese’s assistant at the Portland Timbers for the past five years: They were also teammates on the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (the team now known as the Red Bulls) way back in the 1990s, at the dawn of Major League Soccer.
So the emotional load was particularly heavy when Savarese, the winningest coach in club history, was dismissed on Aug. 21 as PTFC languished in 12th place after a bland 2W-5L-5D stretch in league play, with Joseph tabbed to lead the Timbers for the rest of the season.
“Initially, when everything happened, it was just really strange,” Joseph, an assistant coach for more than a decade across four different MLS clubs, told MLSsoccer.com in a one-on-one conversation on Tuesday. “I've been through it a few times on coaching staffs. But this one, Gio’s a friend of mine, so it was a difficult moment. At times it still is.
“But we also had to push the team forward. We have a job here to do, we have players that have standards and expectations to move forward, make the playoffs, win MLS Cup. So we had to quickly shift gears. The week of, everything was difficult. I think it was the week of the Vancouver game, it was a lot of emotions, everybody internally. But now we're kind of reaching like that second phase, so we pushed through it, we won some games and now we need to clinch the playoffs.”
While Savarese had become something of a Rose City institution, Joseph’s squad has vindicated the change with their subsequent performances.
After losing his first game in charge to the Whitecaps, the Timbers struck up an unbeaten run that’s still rolling as they prepare to visit the LA Galaxy this Saturday (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). PTFC are 5W-1L-1D under their interim boss and have clambered six places up the Western Conference standings, with a very solid chance of booking a place in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“With this group, with the veteran players, there's a lot of leadership,” Joseph noted of a core group that hosted MLS Cup 2021. “They've all been through runs, championship runs, and they've been through MLS Cup runs, playoff runs. And so I think there's a common focus on that, and they know what it takes to get the job done. So that helps kind of weed through the emotions of everything. And when they step on the field, there's no question about where those emotions are. Everybody's playing for each other.”
Though Joseph has worked in MLS as a player or coach for the majority of the league’s existence, this is his first head coaching stint, an opportunity he’s made good use of. Portland have not only been effective, but entertaining, with a more enterprising style than was typical under Savarese.
“My mentality as a coach is pretty aggressive in attacking. So I think from that standpoint, no matter what the situation would have been or is, that would be the way I would want to lead the team,” said Joseph. “You always have to have an eye on the opponent and what they're going to do and where they can hurt you. But I always want to try to see where we can hurt the opponent and put our best players, our most dangerous players in those positions to get after the other team.
“We had a lot of players return to full health, which helps,” he noted, “and then just identifying and clearing some principles of play and being able to structure them with some of the players in their best positions.”
With good results in their final three regular-season matches, Portland could avoid the Wild Card round that will feature the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in each conference, and perhaps even gain home-field advantage in Round One, which will mark a return to the three-game postseason series that Joseph once played in during the league’s infancy.
“I think the first destination would be make the playoffs. So whatever that point total is now, I think it's probably a win and a tie or two wins,” said Joseph. “This team is really focused on just the next game and how we're going to compete against the next team.
“So it's LA Galaxy, and it's a tough place to play and they have a big field and they're doing really well now, they're closing out games or coming back at the end. So it's like, how are we managing all that, and how we're going to be ourselves and play in that game… But I truly and firmly believe that if we get in the playoffs, that we'll do well.”
With just six points separating second place from ninth, it’s been a chaotic stretch run in the West and Joseph expects that to continue right through Decision Day on Oct. 21. Amidst all that, he and his staff are working to keep things simple for the Timbers, whose nearest competitors have games in hand.
"Just win Saturday,” he said with a grin. “Win Saturday, keep it going. I don't know, I think right now, the team is in a really good spot. I think we’re in the exact right place, the exact right moment that we need to be.”