Giovanni Savarese: “It was something that took a lot from me. It was a big, big responsibility that I put on myself. It was just not an easy load to be able to carry.” (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Front Row Soccer Editor
In the postseason, soccer teams generally look to rebuild, retool or tweak their roster, and even take a breather or two.
Yet, Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese was working himself to the point of exhaustion to help save the careers of his players.
“Gio did too much work, probably,” goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer said. “The crazy thing is that he was the one making phone calls day in and day out when it looked like the club wasn’t going to be around and making sure we found other clubs.”
With the two-time defending North American Soccer League champions in the midst of their biggest financial crisis and seemingly eminent extinction, Savarese had little time to mourn for the impending doom of the club. He had work to do – with the focus on only one thing.
“What we experienced should not be part of an organization,” he said earlier this week.
“It was a very, very difficult time,” he added. “It was a moment that I can say that I never experienced before. It took a lot from me, but I always see things at the end of the whole with a light that it requires. I feel that I am stronger, more prepared and that was just difficult little part make me now wanted to give my best to the players and to the game. It definitely it took a big [toll] on me during the time, for sure.”
If anyone has a right to say they bleed Cosmos green, it would be the 45-year-old coach.
Savarese might not have been working 24/7, but he probably felt like it was, taking whatever transpired personally, but always putting on a professional face in a crisis of a lifetime.
When asked to describe his offseason, Savarese laughed and then said, “How can I describe it? Wow! Do you have until next year to do the story?”
He later said: “It was something that took a lot from me. But I don’t quantify it in hours or in days. It was a big, big responsibility that I put on myself. It was just not an easy load to be able to carry.”
Then as cable TV magnate Rocco B. Commisso swooped in at the 11th hour to save the day and the franchise from soccer oblivion as the new majority owner, Savarese had to pivot and reverse his strategy. Instead of finding new clubs for the players, he had to convince those same athletes to return to the club, even after they were not paid for weeks
The fact he could bring players back, including a few who had already signed with another club, was nothing short of a miracle.
“Some of the players had signed and had to go somewhere else,” Savarese said. “So, those guys couldn’t be convinced to come back. Not that they didn’t want to but now they were under contract. So, rebuilding the team from that time when we had very little time has been tough but at the end we were so content that so many players came back, so content that Rocco has done so much to support that we found new players and even though the timing has been very short. We still have more work to do.”
If anything, Savarese’s ability to keep the core of the team together only demonstrated what many players already thought of a coach who already earned their respect.
“We know the kind of person he is,” Maurer, one of the five original Cosmos remaining from the 2013 reboot championship season. “The guys love to play for him. He stuck around, whatever was going to happen, so every single player would be put in the best possible situation.”
Prior to the Cosmos’ financial implosion, Minnesota United, a Major League Soccer expansion team this season, wanted to talk with the former Venezuelan international striker about its head coaching position, but the Cosmos refused.
Some coaches would have jumped ship in December, but Savarese stayed, manning the lifeboats for his players.
Savarese has been the patriarch of the team. So, it was not too foreign to feel the huge responsibility of making sure every player was taken care of.
“You mention it exactly how I was and how I felt,” he said. “I just felt that all these players I care so much for, the staff that they had the possibility to be ok and that put that on my shoulders because a lot of players have given me through the years so much and its always been my pressure to be there for them and at that particular moment.
“It was when I had to step up. How did I get through it? I was surrounded by a good family and a good wife, friends that really care about you and they help you to continue to have the ability to find strength and to continue to help.”
While it sounds like a cliché, team chemistry always was a top priority for Savarese. If you don’t have a relatively happy locker room, problems could spill onto the field. During a 19-year professional career that spanned three continents, Savarese saw things deteriorate behind the scenes elsewhere. Lesson learned.
What the head coach accomplished this winter not fall on blind eyes.
“You see Gio as a coach and as a person day in and day out,” said captain and center back Carlos Mendes, one of the core players. David Diosa, Danny Szetela and Ayoze are the others.
“We know the kind of person he is,” Mendes added. “The guys love to play for him. He stuck around, whatever was going to happen, every single player would be put in the best possible situation. That’s just the type of person he is, the coach he is and a big reason why so many players and so many guys come and want to play for this club.”
Call it the cult of a soccer personality, in the best possible sense.
“Soccer is a business like anything else,” Maurer said. “It’s about relationships. A guy like that, that’s why we all love playing for Gio because we know at the end of the day he wants the best for everyone. He wants the best for the club and when he’s telling you something, you know he’s telling you the truth, good or bad. He’s going to be up front with you and straightforward.”
“When it came time when he’s telling us the club is going to be back, you know it’s true. He’s not going to be lying or stretching the truth. When he told us things were going to be all right, we all could believe him and that made it a lot easier for guys to get back on board.”
And that could go a long way and translate to success on the field. Because of that honesty, players are willing to run through the proverbial brick wall for Savarese.
“Absolutely,” Mendes said. “I know I can speak for myself personally. When you have a coach who believes in you and is behind you 100 percent, you’re going to give your all and you’re going to make sure you’ll do everything you can to help this club win.”
Maurer had similar sentiments.
“When you have someone like Gio that things are being done the right way, you can put a lot of faith in that,” he said.
Savarese and the Cosmos face another test in their home opener against Miami FC at MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn Saturday. New York opened the season with a scoreless draw at Puerto Rico FC last Saturday.
There obviously is a certain satisfaction of building a competitive side in only 74 days.
“First of all, the biggest thing from my part is the fact the New York Cosmos will continue. At the end, there’s going to be another this team under the leadership of Rocco Commisso, a place for more players to come,” he said. “People will be able to remember the history and be part of history in the present. I think that is great feeling for all of us who have been here that have been part of the New York Cosmos.”
While he was looking forward to playing in a borough that is so close to his heart — Savarese played four years at Long Island University in Brooklyn and starred for the Brooklyn Italians — the Cosmos coach was as focused as ever.
On Wednesday, Savarese was asked how much he was looking forward to the MCU opener.
“I am looking forward to tomorrow’s practice first,” he replied. “Tomorrow I will be looking forward to Friday. Then we’ll be close to Saturday.”
Typical Giovanni Savarese, who even takes his practices one day at a time, a philosophy that helped him and his players get through those dark days of December.