It has not been a perfect start for Giovanni Savarese in Portland.
In a way, Savarese is glad for it.
The former New York Cosmos boss waited patiently for a shot in MLS after racking up trophies in the NASL. The surprising departure of Caleb Porter in Portland opened up an opportunity for Savarese, who took over a Timbers team that finished first in the Western Conference last season.
Last year’s first-place finish didn’t mean Savarese inherited a team without problems, however. Portland traded away star midfielder Darlington Nagbe. They had backline issues and they were still searching for the right depth pieces to complement a solid starting lineup featuring reigning league MVP Diego Valeri.
The Timbers also had to adjust to the vision of a new boss.
Portland opened this season with two consecutive losses. Far from ideal. But the former New York/New Jersey MetroStars forward said he considers those losses a vital part of the learning process with his new team.
“It is definitely not the results I wanted to see in the first two matches, but those two matches have given me a lot more information, crucial and important information for me to have, and I wouldn’t have had it if we had won from the beginning,” Savarese said. “With that information and a way of looking deeper into the team, the reward could be bigger because it’s making us work harder to find the best version of this team.”
The transition has not been a difficult one for Savarese, who led the Cosmos to three Soccer Bowl championships in five seasons. Savarese, who scored 51 goals and added 15 assists during his four-plus playing seasons in MLS, said he knew and watched the league throughout his tenure in the NASL. His work as an analyst for ESPN aided that, and Savarese said he went back and watched every Timbers game from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons.
There were a few rules to catch up on in the league, and he said only games will give him a full understanding of what his opposing coaches like to do, but Savarese said his built-in knowledge made for an easy adaptation.
His comfort as the top decision-maker has been clear thus far.
After a poor performance from captain Liam Ridgewell against the New York Red Bulls, including a viral video clip of the center back jogging back lackadaisically on a goal that drew backlash, Savarese opted to leave the veteran at home for a recent trip to Dallas. The Timbers put in their best performance of the season in a 1-1 road draw.
The decision almost certainly sent a message up and down the roster that no one’s job was safe. It was a gutsy call for a coach just two games into his tenure with the team, but Savarese said he is simply trying to instill a certain character within the group.
“I believe that teams have very important players, but those players need to have accountability and need to play as well and push themselves,” Savarese said. “And also everyone on the team needs to feel at every moment their effort in practice and hard work can be rewarded as well. That’s the only thing that will create a great mentality. If a player thinks they are almost a starter, he is going to push to play better and will perform better on the field. That’s the environment we have to create. We have to make those decisions. In regards to Liam, at this point it’s a decision I felt I needed to make. I still believe in Liam, he is still captain and still important to this team, but everyone needs to understand we need to bring our game every single day.”
It’s an identity he tried to establish as soon as he set foot in the door in preseason. Savarese acknowledged his style of coaching takes some trust and understanding, but the aim is to establish a strong unity within the team.
“I’m trying to be very honest, I’m trying to be very direct and transparent and what a player is going to hear is going to be the truth, good or bad,” Savarese said. “They know they can always come and talk to me and ask questions, and they need to be prepared that I’m going to tell truth on where they stand. I believe in every player I have until otherwise, and they know when I don’t believe in those players anymore. Creating that trust, [that] bond sometimes is quicker and sometimes longer.”
For Savarese, the biggest takeaway from the Dallas performance was that his team was finally starting to understand the effort he looks for from his players. And while he said he’d never tell fans to be patient, he wants them to understand he’s pouring himself into the job to give them a team they can be proud of.
Savarese knows patience would be a difficult sell in a city where the expectations remain high. The key now is whether the team builds on that draw in Dallas. The Timbers will face massive pressure early in the season if they can’t find wins. Five straight games on the road is not the easiest way to start, especially with such major transitions occurring within the group.
“The more you see your players in practice, the more games you play, the more you see the team, you have feelings of what should be the next step,” Savarese said. “Always you have an ideal finish line, per se, but sometimes you have to go a little more step-by-step than you thought before. For me it’s how to build and to recognize what you need to do that’s the important part. We have a talented group of players, we have to make sure we continue to progress. Last game I saw a lot of positives. … Week after week we need to perform.”
Savarese seems confident his team will continue to find its way as the season carries forward. If the early-season challenges are any indication, he will not be one to shy away from the difficult moments. The goal, though, is to get his team to a place where their performances altogether dodge those confrontations.