Giovanni Savarese: “I’m usually someone who plays a certain system with a specific philosophy and this year I had to change.” (Photo by Joy Rubenstein)

By Michael Lewis Editor

After enduring countless challenges during the past North American Soccer League season, Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese figured he earned a Ph.D. in soccer coaching this year.

Whether he gets an opportunity to use that “degree” in a league that has a higher degree of difficulty, remains to be seen.

Savarese says he hopes he will be able to decide on his future soon. His name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Caleb Porter with the Portland Timbers. Porter left the Timbers, whom he directed to the MLS Cup crown in 2015, earlier this week.

The former Venezuelan international forward certainly has earned a chance at coaching in Major League Soccer during his five-year tenure with the Cosmos. Outside of winning Soccer Bowl every year, he could not have written a more impressive resume. That includes three NASL championships and a playoff appearance every year.

But before he looks ahead to 2018 and beyond, Savarese last week took one last look at the 2017 season.

“It was a very, very difficult season,” he said, “probably the most difficult season I had to deal with in my time with the Cosmos.”

When asked what he learned this year, Savarese replied, “I think the first thing is, for sure, for me a PhD. degree. We tried so many formations and systems. We tried to incorporate whatever we could to be competitive in the beginning. That took a lot from us to be able to think, ‘Is his going to work? Is that one going to work?’

“Getting to know the players more and more and more in a preseason [when] we couldn’t have everybody. Always trying players. It was good to try so many different things.”

Savarese has liked to use the same system and formations through a season instead of deploying several ones that will change the team’s focus and will mean more work for the players.

“I’m usually someone who plays a certain system with a specific philosophy and this year I had to change everything in regards to what I was accustomed to play to incorporate the players that we had this year into every game that we had to play,” he said. “It was a very big learning lesson, the challenge of bringing so many different characters and new people and manage them and how difficult it’s been to let some guys go early. We arrived to the point that we looked like the Cosmos, which was always the intention. So I definitely learned a lot for sure.”

This team finally looked like the Cosmos down the stretch of the fall season, but not after a long and winding road, especially during the spring season.

Remember, when new owner Rocco B. Commisso bought the team in January, the club had only three players under contract. Many players already had found other teams in the wake of the team’s late-2016 financial collapse and Savarese had to convince players to return and find other players to fill out the roster after most of the seven other NASL had established their teams.

The start of the preseason was delayed for two weeks while the Cosmos looked for training venues — the Dominican Republic and Bermuda were selected — and opponents to play.

It is well known that Savarese had to use a center back who had never trained with the team — Darrius Barnes — for the team’s season opener at Puerto Rico FC. Not every player was match fit as the head coach was forced to deploy Walter Restrepo, a midfielder with superb crossing and passing ability, at striker.

“The first part of the season, trying to get the team fit, trying to get the team in shape, trying to get what we wanted from the team,” Savarese said. “We tried as much as we could tactically as we could, played teams that was definitely better than us, like Miami and others.”

In May, the Cosmos were eliminated from the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup, which has been considered the organization’s holy grail to prove the team can play with MLS side consistently, via a 3-2 defeat to Reading United, a Premier Development League team that performs in the fourth division in the U.S. Soccer’s pecking order. It was one of the low points of the season, when you consider the club’s aspirations and the embarrassment of being shown the door by a team from a lower league.

Savarese called it “a big disappointment.”

“Mentally, the team wasn’t prepared for the game,” he said. “We should have been better. The fact we had to travel to Saudi Arabia the next day, it didn’t help. We had to go there and come back. We had to move games. And all of sudden we find ourselves in a blink of an eye in July.

“We had to clean up we had to send some players away, re-sign some players. Those players needed to acclimate [themselves with the team] and find a way. I would have to say we showed some good things in the summer. We played Valencia [in an international friendly]. We beat Miami. once we started incorporating the new guys, little by little they needed to get into form. Our team, at the end of August, the beginning of September was when we clicked.”

During the final six games of the regular season, the Cosmos went on a 3-0-3 run to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot. They defeated Miami FC, which captured the spring and fall championships by huge margins, in the semifinals by shootout before losing in the final to the San Francisco Deltas, 2-0.

Savarese decided against bringing in new players for the fall season.

“Instead of bringing more players that could have maybe fixed some areas that we had lacked depth, we tried to manage the ones that we had and use those in which,” he said. “We had a lot of depth in the positions to be able to play with what we got. I have to say I am very proud of the guys in how we managed to make it into the final. I don’t think anyone would have thought with the beginning of the year that we had because people remembered in the spring season, how difficult the year was. But I think people forget afterwards. It’s definitely a big accomplishment from our players.”

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at