Giovanni Savarese on coaching: “It’s a passion. It is the closest that we can be to the game after being players.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Prior to his debut as Cosmos head coach in August 2013, I sat down with Giovanni Savarese to talk about coaching.
With MLS Cup being only three days away, this is a good time to share this interview with the world again as Savarese puts the finishing touches on the preparations of the Portland Timbers for its match against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday at 8:08 p.m. ET.
Savarese has coached at just about every level, from youth to college to U.S. Soccer Development Academy to amateur to the professional ranks.
How and why did you get started in coaching?
It’s a passion. It is the closest that we can be to the game after being players. I think also I have a passion to teach and to educate. I’ve been doing this for a long, long time with youth players. I feel it is my nature. This great passion that I have for coaching has led me to this position. Sometimes when you are still a player, you look at the game, you try to understand the practices. I used to write down the coaching sessions when [former Brazilian coach Carlos] Parriera was there, when Carlos Queiroz was there. Whatever we did, I tried to analyze it and understand why they’re doing this, why they’re doing that. What they get in regards to the tactical part, the technical part. I think I was already a coach when I was a player. After I got my education. I’ve got my A license. I also did some studying in Europe. I visited different clubs, talked to coaches. So I had a chance to travel around when I was coaching youth academies. At the end I’ve been doing this for a while. Doing [work as] a player and after I retired right away I jumped into it. As a player, I used to work camps sometimes. I was always involved in the game.
Do you remember much about your first game as a coach and do you remember where it was?
That’s a good question [Savarese smiles]. Maybe the first competitive coach — I did some coaching in youth — was probably in 2002, if I recall correctly in St. John’s University. I was an assistant coach. I was still a player. But I took a little break. I coached with Dave Masur. I was one of the assistant coaches. I can’t remember exactly who we played against.
What did you learn about most in your first year as a coach?
You’re always learning, always learning many, many things. The most important thing that you learn is bring to the game and your sessions what you had during the games when you played. To be able to communicate that to the players is the first challenge that you have. To work the locker room, to make sure that the players always respect you. That’s always something that you work on to make sure you have control of the group that you’re coaching. But overall, everything felt natural all the time. There was nothing that was difficult or sacrificed. The only thing is always I wanted to improve every single day and learn more and talk to people, see sessions. That’s part of the coaching experience.
Is there one coach who has influenced you more than any other coach?
No. I think every coach has played a part in my development as a coach. I remember every single one. Each one has left me something. Since my youth coaches, a Brazilian coach and another who played with the national team of Peru, those were my first coaches. I had a few interesting coaches in Venezuela, the national team, the professional teams that I played for. There was one specifically Badu Vieira [a Brazilian] ended up being head coach of the Iranian national team who also brought a lot of new things. It was interesting the way he worked. He used to work a lot in the mental part of the players. I also learned from the things he did. [Carlos] Queiroz, [Alfonso] Mondelo. Carlos Alberto. Arnie Ramirez. Each always brought something that I always wanted to learn from. I was inspired by every single one. I don’t have only one.
Are there any coaches today who you admire, or you follow or look at their theories more than others?
There are a lot of great coaches. Of course, you talk about [Pep] Guardiola, the one from Borussia Dortmund [then it was Jurgen Klopp]. There are so many interesting coaches. Each one brings something new. You just try take a little bit from [Giovanni] Trappatoni, a little bit from [Fabio] Capello, a little bit from [Carlo] Ancelotti. Capello is a disciplinarian. You have someone like [Arrigo] Sacchi who likes to do a lot of competitive training. That way it become automatic. You have Ancelotti who probably has the best handler of a group. Every single player who has played under him, they love him. They feel very comfortable with him. He gives freedom to the players. Guardiola, who could not be inspired with his way of play? To be able to be in a club for so long, Alex Ferguson, so many years in one club being successful. And someone like Bruce Arena because he has proven to be a success in the United States. All of them have inspired me and many, many people to continue working. Its different things that you pick up from them. It’s not everything. You try to build your own way of coaching by selecting things that you like from each of them. You try to keep growing on a constant basis.
When you’re on the bench and you’re coaching a hotly contested game, can you sometimes kick back and say “This is one beautiful game” or “This is one great game?” even though you are sweating through it.
Definitely, you as a coach sometimes we have been able to experience things like that. Special games, competitive matches, enjoyable matches that while you’re watching the game, you’re enjoying what you’re seeing. Even more sometimes as the other team puts it as a challenge for you, which make you think even more what your next moves are going to be. Those are the most exciting games. Yes, you are able to while you are coaching, enjoy these kind of games.
Do you feel your coaching is done before the game and is there a limit what you can do during a game as a coach?
It’s all about the players, but I think the coaching is permanent. It is before, it is during and after. Therefore, it is even more in the next few days. So I think it is constant coaching. Coaching is not only giving information to the players. It’s making sure you know how to talk to the players after you lose a match. How are you going to organize a week after you lose a match after the players maybe are not mentally geared for it because they lost the previous match, giving at the same time the information to the players to prepare for the game? It’s constant. The coaching never stops. It’s always permanent. When they enter onto the field, yes, the players are the protagonists of the match. But you also being a coach, I’ll give you an example, a coach that is nervous on the bench can put a team nervous as well. So the coach is permanent. It’s about the players as well because they ultimately are going to be the ones who are going to execute everything the coaches are giving them.
Is there is one memorable game that stands out in your mind?
For me, every game is exciting, every game is important. I put an effort into every single game equally. Just being on the sideline, coaching a game is special by itself. So it’s difficult to say one in particular. I’m sure furthermore in the future we hope there is going to be more matches that can lead to championships and things like that. Those matches to be able to bring trophies to reward the efforts of the players. It’s very important.
Do you bring home wins and losses, or do you shake it out of your system?
I am very fortunate to have Michelle as my wife because you bring everything home. Of course, you manage it, but you constantly thinking about the team, about what is next, the wins, the losses. I think the most important thing is to be always balanced, not to be overexcited about winning, and the same going too down on losing. The more you come even and balanced that will allow the players to be more comfortable in the whole process.
What is the most difficult job you have to do as a coach? Is it telling a player he won’t make the cut or is it something else?
The most difficult thing is to select the 18 that are going to be dressing on a specific game. I think players work so hard day by day, wanting to be part of each match. When you have to make a list on who are going to be the 18 players, it’s probably a difficult moment because you would love to reward every single one for the efforts that they give on a constant basis. Definitely, that’s a difficult moment for a coach, but that’s a moment that you want to be. You want to. If it’s not difficult to you, it means that there is something wrong happening. It’s definitely not easy when you have to select the players that are going to be dressing. I think calling in a player or not allowing a player to make it, when it’s the truth, saying the truth, I’m not uncomfortable because at the end of the day, players will respect that a lot more than if you go around and don’t talk to them straight forward. So I would say the roster and the 18 is the most difficult.
What is the most gratifying thing to you as a coach?
To do what I love to do on a constant basis. That’s the most gratifying thing about being a coach. It’s the work, it’s the preparation of the match. It’s the preparation of the practices. It’s selecting players. It’s being able to work with a great staff, which at the end they might not agree with everything that you think. But they challenge you to try in order to make you better. You try to come to a common decision that is best for the team. Being close to the grass, being close to the game, coaching the on a constant basis is very gratifying. I think ultimately is when you see when the players win championship, when you see them execute when they’ve been working. Seeing the enjoyment in the game. When you see that in the players, having that success, it’s very gratifying. For now, it’s not as much about our success, it’s mostly about the players’ success.
If you weren’t coaching, what would you be doing?
That’s a good question. I think I would look somewhere to teach. Maybe history, maybe geography. I have a passion for teaching; maybe something I would do anyway if I wasn’t a coach. But who knows? There are many things I could have been doing. But I never lose any time to think about that. I have always been a person that when I put something in my mind, and I have a passion to do that, that is the only thing that I lead to and I follow. When I was a kid, I always said I would be a professional player one day. No matter what the situation was or the difficulties that I might face, I knew I wanted to be a professional player. So I was ready to work for that. So I don’t see myself doing anything else right now than coaching.