BEAVERTON, Ore.—Before Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese could change the team’s formations, systems, or tactics in his first year on the job, he knew the first thing to change was the atmosphere at practice.
Players were always jovial and kind between sessions, but once practice began, the mood of practice was one of quiet intensity. Under Savarese, trainings — even during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs — reflect the joy of the game. On the surface, it may look like the team is “loose,” and Savarese agrees in principle, but suggests a different word choice.
“It’s more ‘enjoyable’ than ‘loose,’” he explained at the team’s training facility this week. “Because everybody is sharp. Everybody is ready. Everybody mentally is prepared to make sure they give what we need to give in the games, so it's more of a fun environment than a loose environment.
“It’s always important to have a good culture and a great mentality,” he added, noting that he feels that begins by creating a training environment that encourages both selflessness and the joy derived from playing the game. Savarese believes the unity on display with this Timbers team is a direct result of combining “a good locker room” with an adept coaching staff “to make sure that the guys enjoy coming to practice.”
This translates directly to the play on the field, said Zarek Valentin.
“A lot of times when the goals come, it’s just improvisation and people running into spaces and the linkage, [such as] when [Diego] Valeri plays it to Seba[stian Blanco] and it's a quick 1-2,” said the Timbers fullback. “Then you see [Diego] Chara overlapping, and switching. That doesn't just happen.
“That's why you see me celebrating so hard [when the team scores],” Valentin continued. “Because we work our butts off out there to keep a clean sheet as much as possible and when those guys and score some crazy goals, we're the first ones to be there because we are so happy for our teammates.”
Valeri agrees, noting Savarese made it a squad goal very early on.
“He was very concerned from his first practice that we are a united group; a strong group,” said the 2017 MLS MVP. “Whatever happens, lose, or win, we are together. That was important.”
The camaraderie and “good vibes” at training aren’t solely those of the only the players, says Valentin.
“The cohesiveness in our group starts from the top down,” he explained, adding that the coaching staff are “training and smiling and laughing with us they win and they lose with us. It’s a joy to play for a staff like that. It makes you want to win more for them.”
Combine that with a strong dose of postseason momentum, and the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup doesn’t seem so unlikely, despite being the lower seed in each round of the playoffs.
“We're not here because we convinced people now that we are the team,” Savarese said. “No, we worked because we believe in our team. We believe in our players and this is credit just to all the work that everybody did.”
Valentin echoed that sentiment.
“We're not favored, but who cares?” he said. “We'll be underdogs all day. And we'll do that role and we believe in ourselves and we have enough cohesiveness in the locker room to give Atlanta a good game.
“We believe in ourselves in the end of the day,” added Valentin. “That's really all that matters.”