Giovanni Savarese: “I played there, I worked there. of course, I know the surroundings very well. So it’s a special match.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis Editor

When the teams take the Red Bull Arena field prior to the Red Bulls’ clash with the Portland Timbers Saturday night, Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips are expected to get among the biggest ovations.

After all, they were the two big heroes of the Red Bulls’ historic win in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals first leg at Tijuana Tuesday.

It would not be surprising if Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese runs a close third.

Now, not many opposing coaches get cheered in Harrison, N.J., but the faithful could make an exception for one of the most popular players in the team’s 23-year history. During the team’s first three years as the MetroStars, Savarese tallied 44 goals, which are good for fifth club history. He also was the club’s youth director after its name was changed to the Red Bulls.

Now, Savarese doesn’t know what sort of reception he will receive, but the former Cosmos head coach is looking forward to returning to the metropolitan area, even if it’s only a handful of days.

“There’s a level of excitement to go back to New York, to be able to play the Red Bulls because of the history that we have,” he said by telephone Wednesday night. “I played there, I worked there. of course, I know the surroundings very well. So it’s a special match.”

While Savarese could be inundated with well-wishers and members of the area soccer community he has known through the years, he isn’t returning on a goodwill trip. He would rather take home three points with a W.

“I am focused on the task we have,” he said. “It’s another important game for the Portland Timbers. I think that’s the most important part.”

But Savarese is ready for the spotlight.

“Nevertheless, it will be great to see so many family, friends, people that I care so much, being there at the stadium watching the match,” he said. “It is an interesting situation as well. I have always been grateful for the way the fans treated me during the time I played there. Always the Cosmos fans, now the Portland fans. It’s a special day for that as well. The fans have been with me when I was there playing for the MetroStars.”

His ties to the metropolitan area run deep. He originally came to the U.S. to attend the Pele Soccer camp. He was recruited by then coach Arnie Ramirez to play for Long Island University Brooklyn before joining the Long Island Rough Riders and helping the club win the U.S. Interregional Soccer League crown in 1995. After returning, Savarese went into coaching, a resume that includes the Met Oval.

Savarese, who directed the Cosmos to three North American Soccer League titles in five seasons, watched his team drop a 2-1 decision at the LA Galaxy in his debut as Portland boss last Sunday.

“The first game was what some way expected,” he said. “We expected a difficult match, a team at times would be open. Some of the things that they did we knew, and we scouted that. Just a tough match all around. I saw some very good things from our team as well that we can build on. Never do you want to start with a defeat. now that the first game is gone now we can concentrate in getting the done job and hopefully bring wins to Portland.”

The Timbers will take on a Red Bulls side that already has three games under its belt thanks to the CCL. Savarese and his staff watched New York’s stunning result on TV Tuesday night. He was impressed with the team’s strategy and execution.

“First of all, it’s great when an MLS team or an American team does well in the Champions League because it means that soccer is growing in the United States,” he said. “It is a very positive sign. Them beating a good team like Tijuana at their home it was a tremendous result. I think the way they went about how difficult they made the game for Tijuana, how Wright-Phillips created the situation to find the two goals, is superb. I think they are a tough team. Now they can continue that result and continue to dream about going all the way in the Champions League. Now they have to face us.”

With the CCL second leg slated or RBA Tuesday, there has been much speculation the Red Bulls will deploy several reserves against Portland. Even though it is the team’s home opener, the CONCACAF competition has to take precedence at this juncture.

“It will be interesting to see how they manage these three matches,” Savarese said.

The degree of difficulty in MLS is much greater than the NASL, which had only eight teams in its last season. In contrast, MLS has 23, so there are more foes to scout and for which to prepare. Then, there’s the game environment.

“It’s a different stage for sure,” Savarese said. “You can see in the structures, the stadium, the amount of people that go to the matches, the level of preparation in regard to what you are going to encounter as a player, as a fan. It is Major League Soccer. Definitely, that is something you can see right away but also, the games, the speed of play has been good, how athletic the league is.

“Now, also a taste of good quality from players who are at the top of the level. I think it’s definitely palatable. It is something you can see that every game is tough. It is the same thing about the NASL. I think there’s a level of fitness and velocity of the game in the MLS that is more difficult. The most important part is the entire environment and also working with the club and the amount of people and the amount of support that you have in the different areas to make sure you think about everything to do be successful.”

It might be a new league and a new challenge for the former Venezuelan international striker, but Savarese hasn’t forgotten what helped get him the Portland job. It is important to add not only talented players, but good people in the locker room.

Savarese has said he declined to sign players for the Cosmos because of their off-the-field reputations. In fact, Cosmos players loved to play for Savarese, even if he did not call their number enough to make the Starting XI.

“No doubt the most important thing always, not only for soccer but everything that you want to do that involves a group,” he said. “And that’s the same thing that we’re trying to implement here. There’s a group of guys. I’ve seen them more and more getting united and it’s been very good to see. There is no way to win anything if you don’t have a group that is very solid together, willing to work as one to accomplish big things.”