Giovanni Savarese has the communication skills and tactical knowledge to continue his success in MLS. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
First of all, a little bit of disclosure.
I have had the privilege of knowing Savarese for the past quarter century. So, I admit I could be a little biased.
We met when he was filling the net for Arnie Ramirez’s team at LIU Brooklyn in 1992. I watched him take his game to higher orbits with the Long Island Rough Riders (he scored 33 goals as the team captured the 1995 U.S. Interregional Soccer League crown).
He was drafted by the MetroStars and was their corner stone of their attack for three seasons (41 goals).
After retiring, the Venezuelan international striker became the Red Bulls youth director, went to the Met Oval to run its youth side before the Cosmos head coaching job opened up in late 2012.
So, I have seen him grow as a player and as a coach.
Combine his communication skills and tactical knowledge and you have a coach who can take a soccer team a long way.
Heck, we’ve seen him do it not once, not twice, but three times with the Cosmos.
When he took over the team’s reins for the 2013 North American Soccer League fall season, there were doubts out there whether Savarese could direct a professional team. He had never coached a team at that level before.
After the Cosmos won the fall title and eventually the NASL championship, Savarese’s critics felt it was more his recruiting of talent and the Cosmos’ deep pockets that brought in the likes of Marcos Senna into the team.
But it was more than just bringing in one player, however special Senna was.
One of Savarese’s early and top priorities was having a good locker room. That meant having players with good character. Savarese once told me he rejected considering some big-name players because of the unwanted baggage and bad vibes they could bring to the locker room.
Yes, team chemistry can be a cliché in sports, but it wasn’t for the Cosmos.
The players loved to play for Savarese. They would run through brick walls for him. Keeping two dozen plus players happy and fighting for a starting role or an opportunity to at least be part of the 18 is not an easy task. Savarese, however, kept the communication lines open, making sure every player knew his place and why he did not make the 18 or the 11.
“Gio has been just incredible, the stuff he does and the way he is able to bring our personalities together, make the team mesh, balance everyone,” said former Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, who signed with FC Dallas Monday. “Even the guys that aren’t even in the 18 weekly, he really goes out of his way to make sure everyone feels they are part of this team that we’re a family. It starts with him.
“As a coach he is dealing with 27-30 individuals. But he goes out of his way to make sure that everyone feels involved, to make sure you can communicate where you are on the team, what you can be going better, what you’re doing well, different things the team needs, what you can do to help the team. And those little things go a long way for players and that’s why everyone talks so highly of Gio. I don’t know any player, even if he is a guy that Gio never plays, guys still respect him on how honest and up front he is. That’s all you can ask for. If a coach decides to go with another guy, that’s the job, that’s the business, sometimes you’re not the player the coach picks. Maybe you’re not good enough or maybe he likes the guy’s characteristics, whatever it may be. But at the end of the day, people want you to be honest and forthcoming with them and that’s the biggest thing.”
Midfielder Irving Herrera had every right to complain about not playing more. This is what he said about Savarese:
“He’s kept the team together. He knows how to motivate us. He knows how to talk to us, get everyone on the same page. That’s why the team hasn’t broken down. He’s always there for us, he’s always talking to us, motivating us every day in practice, every day before the game. It’s one whole big family. He’s one of the key parts of the team. It’s very together most of the time.”
As for Savarese’s tactical knowledge, he enhanced his reputation for what he accomplished this past season.
As of the middle of January, he had no team, only three players under contract, as virtually the entire roster had signed on with another team or was looking in the wake of the Cosmos’ financial collapse in 2016.
He put together a team that eventually found its footing and reached the league’s Championship Final before losing to the San Francisco Deltas, 2-0.
He moved players in and out of the lineup, switching formations and style from game to game, trying to find the right rhythm and three points.
At one point or another, the Cosmos used seven formations during their playoff pursuit.
The started with a 4-2-3-1, went to 4-3-3, switched to a 3-6-1, changed to 4-1-3-2, decided to go with a 4-4-2, flipped to a 4-1-4-1 and moved to a 3-5-2. In case you were interested, he selected a 4-3-3 in the final against San Francisco.
It was a masterful demonstration of coaching because the players bought into it. It’s one thing to have a theory, it’s another when the players go out and turn it into reality.
Savarese’s reward wasn’t a fourth NASL crown or coach of the year, it was a chance to finally coach in Major League Soccer.
Oh, he is far from perfect.
Savarese has had his moments with referees and fourth officials.
Perhaps his favorite saying is that he wants his team to play every game like it is a final.
Hmmm, perhaps that’s one reason why his teams have been so successful, pushing his players to their limits and beyond.
Portland, you are getting someone very special.