Merritt Paulson knew something was up when he saw a new face manning the grill.
Earlier this year, the Portland Timbers were hosting a cookout for players and their families at their training facility when the club’s owner/CEO – puzzled that someone other than team chef Richard Meyer was at the barbeque – asked why outside help had been hired for the event.
Turns out it was a cook from a well-regarded local Italian eatery who’d recently crossed paths with the Timbers’ new head coach, Giovanni Savarese. They’d hit it off so well, and so quickly, that the chef traveled out to Beaverton to put in a pro bono shift on the grill on his day off.
Paulson recalls: “[They told me] ‘Oh no, we’re not paying for him! Gio just met him and he wants to come out here because he’s become buddies with Gio.’
“He meets people and he’s got an infectious personality,” Paulson added. “There’s a sense of genuineness there that’s highly unique.”
Striking his path … as a coach
Your mental picture of Savarese probably says a lot about your age, or at least the length of your relationship with Major League Soccer.
To younger fans, he’s the passionate, animated figure stalking the technical area during Timbers matches, urging on the likes of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, much as he will during Sunday's Heineken Rivalry Week clash with the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park (9:30 pm ET | FS1 – Full TV & streaming info).
But to viewers of an older vintage, Savarese is perhaps the first cult hero in the league’s history, one of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars’ first players and the all-time goalscoring leader of that club (now the New York Red Bulls) – for years, until the likes of Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel and Bradley Wright-Phillips came along.
“It’s a different league,” says Savarese when asked to compare the MLS he played in to the entity of today. “We hoped – we didn’t know, we hoped – back then that this was going to be the direction. And seeing now the way it has grown, it’s incredible, and feeling a part of building up that foundation makes me personally be proud. To see now that we have a league that is so competitive it’s amazing, it’s stable, it’s going to continue to grow and it’s been beautiful to see it evolve the way it has. I’m glad to be back where I started.”
Between his “Metro legend” and “Timbers boss” phases, Gio did some wandering, to put it mildly.
Leaving the MetroStars via a controversial trade to New England in 1999, Savarese earned a stint in Italy with Perugia and third-tier side Viterbese, returned to MLS to join the San Jose Earthquakes, spent time back to his native Venezuela, took a spin through England's lower divisions with Swansea City and Millwall, gave it another try in Italy and wrote a final chapter with the Long Island Rough Riders, the club where he’d first made his name as a championship winner and league MVP in the old USISL, a forerunner to today's USL, in 1995.
When he became a coach, his journey took him not across continents but up and down the American soccer pyramid. He worked in the youth game, where he helped lay the foundation for the MetroStars’ developmental system that grew into the RBNY academy powerhouse of today and started the New York Cosmos’ academy from scratch. He experienced NCAA ball as an assistant at St. John’s University. And he cut his teeth in the pros as the successful and well-respected coach of the contemporary version of the Cosmos, leading that club to three NASL championships in five seasons (2013-17).
Savarese’s body of work earned him no shortage of attention from MLS front offices. He came very close to taking over the Houston Dynamo after Dominic Kinnear’s departure in 2014 – “I’m forever going to remember that they believed in me at that time, that they gave me the opportunity. Unfortunately things were not in place at that moment,” he said – yet a return to MLS wasn’t in the cards at the time.
Having led the Cosmos from the launch of their 2013 return to league competition, Savarese told MLSsoccer.com that he couldn't quite bring himself to consider the project complete.
“It took time to be able to build that,” Savarese said in a wide-ranging conversation during the Timbers’ recent road trip to Washington, D.C. “[I waited until] I felt that it was the right moment to make that transition. As a player – even though sometimes I bounced different places – I was a firm believer to stay in one club, play as much as I can for one club, because I believe that loyalty is a quality that hopefully we never lose.”
He speaks of “culture,” “beliefs” and “shared values,” and was quick to publicly shoulder blame when Portland slumped to a three-game losing streak last week.
“Soccer, if you treat it like it’s life and you have the same values as life, I think you build something strong,” he says. “You bring a good foundation and a good base, and I think at the end when you go back and you see these people again, you want them to remember you, not only for being a coach but to be a person that, at least you left them something. And they know that you also grew, because they were able to give you something.”
Rose City, Rosy Outlook
Savarese has high hopes of conjuring up some golden moments in the near future in the Rose City. Inheriting a Timbers team carrying both championship pedigree and the outsized expectations of “Soccer City USA,” Savarese weathered a winless five-game season-opening road stretch before leading PTFC on a record-breaking 15-game unbeaten run.
Crafting a squad recognized mainly for its elite attacking talent into a ruggedly resilient defensive unit, the 47-year-old Venezuelan has utilized – among other tactical wrinkles – the rarely-seen 4-3-2-1 "Christmas tree" formation to get the most out of his group and steer them into the heart of the Western Conference playoff race.
And he’s just getting started.
“I have an ideal way of looking at soccer, but also I have to adapt to the players that I have,” Savarese says. “I cannot be stubborn and say ‘I like to play this way and that’s it.’ No. We have to build always and learn what we have, and what are the best qualities of what we have built.
“There’s been a transition and there’s been a change of the way we used to play there to the way we play now, me adapting to the players that we have here. And I grow more also in this new adventure, in creating something new while we’re moving along to what I think we can be.”
Along the way, he’s quickly earned the buy-in of those both above and below him on the totem pole.
Timbers striker Samuel Armenteros called Savarese a caring and understanding coach, one he feels comfortable speaking to on and off the field, whether the topic sticks to soccer or wanders outside the lines.
“He’s very direct,” Armenteros says. “He lets us know what he expects from us in each position; obviously that’s something we as players need.”
Says Savarese: “They’re going to hear the truth from me, but I want to hear the truth from them as well. And I think when it’s a transparent environment, things are always better.”
Timbers GM/president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson believes Savarese has managed to finesse the incoming coach's difficult task of garnering respect up and down the org chart. He cites work ethic and humility as the key elements.
“Being able to get that respect that quickly shows a lot about his personality, shows a lot about his level of intelligence,” Wilkinson says. “I think they share an understanding of his passion of the game. What he’s given the club, what he does on the field has been very impressive.”
Meeting this moment, and the ones to come
Yet even after the extended unbeaten run, a sudden three-game losing skid has clouded the picture a bit, and with surging Seattle riding a six-game winning streak into Portland, the Timbers could well be leapfrogged in the standings by their bitter rivals with a weekend loss.
Savarese tweaked his team’s formation and tried some new tactical and personnel combinations – which blew up in lopsided road losses at D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. But he believes there’s a longer-term payoff, as he aims to grow PTFC into a more versatile group capable of handling the different scenarios that a playoff run can present.
“We’re taking maybe a little longer to get somewhere, but we’re still building on a foundation that’s going to be strong for the future,” he explains. “We’ve been this difficult team to break down, difficult to go through, because the mentality’s good, we understand tactically how to do it. [But] the qualities that we have allow us to be this very dangerous attacking team that has a Valeri, Blanco, Armenteros and others.
“So for me it’s great because this is what we needed. It’s not as much what you want, it’s what you need, and how we can evolve and grow game by game. And we have tested. Every game we put something different in the game to see, can we evolve? Can we grow? And if it’s good, then wow, we can make another step forward.”
The PTFC faithful are famously devoted in Portland, but they’re also quick to express their displeasure when things go wrong – and the faint rumblings of discontent are likely to get much louder if the Sounders are not dispatched on Sunday. It’s a pressurized environment that Savarese experienced overseas as a player, and now he’s happy to ride that tiger as a coach.
“For me, I see it as the biggest job in the league, and that’s why I’m content to be there,” he says. “We have a fanbase that is passionate, that is knowledgeable, that is truthful. I think when you are there, you feel that you are in a true football/soccer environment.
“When we’re home, we know that we have that support of the 12th man that is going to push us to be better, to be sharper, to be good. And when things go well, it’s great, but also you need to be prepared that when things don’t go well, that’s the environment. What I can say is that I’m going to give my best every single day. I go to work every day to give my best and hope that we can represent the club in a good way. And then hopefully things take the right path to be successful.”