Giovanni Savarese, back in the day, with LIU in 1992. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

It seemed that head coach Giovanni Savarese’s first Major League Soccer experience with the MetroStars was a continuous uphill battle.

The Portland Timbers head coach had to overcome being a relatively late selection in the player draft, had to fight his way into the Starting XI and worked hard to become the MetroStars’ all-time goal-scorer.

His reward?

Savarese was traded by the team prior to the 1999 season.

Still, Savarese has remained one of the most popular players in club history, having scored 41 goals during his three-year tenure with the club. The MetroStars, of course, are known as the Red Bulls today.

“It was a combination of things,” he said. “First of all, I scored goals. It helps always when you are a forward, to be able to score goals. It gets the fans to like you. For every game I gave 100 percent, even in the harder times. Even when I felt I deserved to play, people felt I deserved to play but I never talked bad about anybody. I always kept my mind focused on what I really wanted to do. That was to work hard and help the team to be able to score goals. Also, after games I was the last player to sign autographs with every fan.”

Taken by the MetroStars in the eighth round of the MLS allocation draft in 1996, Savarese had trouble convincing head coach Eddie Firmani that he belonged in the Starting XI. That, despite earning regular-season and playoff MVP honors in the U.S. Interregional Soccer League, while helping the Long Island Rough Riders to the 1995 championship with 33 goals on a team that included future MLS stars Tony Meola and Chris Armas.

For the record, Savarese connected for his first goal in a 2-1 road loss to the LA Galaxy April 13, 1996. That was followed with a pair of home losses — 1-0 to the New England Revolution and 2-0 to the Columbus Crew.

Savarese found himself on the bench for the 0-3 MetroStars for their May 4 home game against the league-leading Tampa Bay Mutiny. After 58 minutes in front of a Giants Stadium crowd of 38,621, the embarrassed MetroStars, who were supposed to be the league’s flagship franchise, saw their season and credibility with area soccer fans starting to fade away.

It became so quiet and dreary at the stadium that it seemed a funeral was being held.

Savarese replaced defender Rhett Harty in the 63rd minute, although it took several minutes for the Venezuelan international to make an impact.

First, Tab Ramos took a corner kick in the 72nd minute and Mutiny defender Cle Kooiman, who was at the near post, tried to clear it, but flicked it into his net.

Barely a minute later, Savarese got a ball from Ruben Dario Hernandez and from in close clipped it past goalkeeper Mark Dougherty.

The third goal was a beauty — a bicycle kick to equalize in the 75th minute.

“I remember getting the ball, passing it to Hernandez,” Savarese said. “He had it on the left side. He started going around himself, giving me enough time to get inside the area. When he crossed it, I just had a beautiful ball for a bicycle kick. I did it and it just went into the ball.”

The place was pandemonium.

“I was sitting on the bench. I envisioned the game that way,” Savarese said. “I was ready to step onto the field. I knew I was going to score. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to score and do everything. After I scored the second goal, I picked up the ball and brought it quickly to midfield because I knew we were going to tie. Sometimes it happens. You think that you are going to give a big impact to the game. I felt it that day.”

For the record, the MetroStars prevailed in a shootout, recording a 4-3 win, but getting only one point for their efforts. Still, it was much better than the alternative — a fourth consecutive loss.

Incredible as it sounds, Savarese was back on the bench for the team’s next game — at D.C. United. He came off the bench to help the MetroStars salvage a 1-1 draw.

Firmani finally relented and started Savarese against the Colorado Rapids on May 16. Savarese had a hat-trick. Yet, he admitted the Tampa Bay game was more important to him.

“It was probably bigger than the hat-trick,” he said. “The energy in the stadium was amazing. Even the day I scored the three goals, I didn’t think it was as exciting as that game. It was just one of the most memorable days of my MetroStars career.”

It seemed Savarese had two personalities on the field. Outside the penalty area, he was like Clark Kent. Inside of it, he was Superman.

He forged a reputation as scoring from close range, sometimes putting in garbage goals. But they all counted.

“You know what happened in MLS? I wanted to be effective,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything else. I can score goals from outside the area. I did it in Syracuse, I scored from midfield. Arnie Ramirez (former Long Island University coach) reminds everybody that as soon as we started the second half, I kicked and I scored.

“I wanted to be effective. I’ve got to get the ball to somebody who can get it back to me when I am in the area. That’s how I can score more goals. So I limited myself not to dribble and waste my time with other things that I can be actually effective and score goals. I tried to play to my strength.”

He certainly did.

Regardless who was the coach, Savarese continued to score, although he always had to prove himself.

“I was Venezuelan. We did not have a tradition in soccer,” he said. “The coach will say, ‘I don’t know if he could do the job.’ I am the type of player who works and always plays to my strength, not doing things I am not good at. I know my limitations and try to work to be effective.

“Maybe some coaches . . . were looking for something different. We always had foreign coaches. With the MetroStars, they didn’t know what I did the year before. . . . I understand that to take a foreign spot, you got to do something to deserve it. You’ve got to do better than anyone else because there are only three of four of them.”

Carlos Queiroz took over for Firmani in late May that year as Savarese finished with a team-high 13 goals. Carlos Alberto Parreira, who directed Brazil to the 1994 World Cup crown, guided the team in 1997, with ex-Rough Riders coach Alfonso Mondelo taking over the reins in 1998 before he was fired in favor of Bora Milutinovic late that season. Savarese collected 14 goals in both years, including a career-high seven assists in 1998.

Before the 1999 season, Bora decided to clean house and Savarese was one of those players traded away in a multi-player deal with the Revolution.

Bora might be one of the most successful coaches in transforming mediocre sides into World Cup surprises, but he had little clue as to what MLS was about. He directed the MetroStars to an abysmal 7-25 mark, one of the worst in league history.

“It was very difficult,” Savarese said. “I remember I was in Italy when I heard I was going to be traded. I felt that the team I loved and fought for my shirt gave me away, not because that I didn’t produce but because of other things. . . . I know that Bora was not a big fan of me.

“I didn’t know why I was being traded. . . . After the trade I was happy because the fans were mad. It wasn’t just only me that I didn’t know what happened. I heard a lot of (fan) comments. The thing that made me happy was that I was going to a coach that really wanted me.”

That was Revs coach Walter Zenga as Savarese continued to do what he did best — score. He struck for 10 goals in an injured-plagued 1999 season.

Two came against the MetroStars in a 4-3 shootout win at Giants Stadium May 29, 1999.

“The thing was to prove that I shouldn’t have been traded,” Savarese said. “No disrespect to the fans because I really felt they backed me up. It was mostly to the team.

“It was emotional, for sure, playing in the colors of the MetroStars, now on the other side.”

Savarese left the league after that season, performing in Italy for a season before returning to play the final month with the San Jose Earthquakes. He went on to star for Swansea and Millwall in the English Football League.

After returning to the Rough Riders in an unsuccessful attempt to boost them into the USL Second Division playoffs last year, Savarese re-joined the MetroStars as director of youth soccer and player development before the 2005 season.

Savarese felt he was back where he belonged.

“It was a beautiful thing when Nick [Sakiewicz, former MetroStars president and general manager] offered me the position,” he said. “It definitely was where I want to be. I’m not looking to go anywhere. I still have my heart with the MetroStars. Alexi [Lalas, who succeeded Sakiewicz] is in the same direction as me. We have to bring back all of the players. We want to make every ex-MetroStar player feel that that can do something for the MetroStars.”

In 2007, Savarese was fired from that position by the Red Bulls.

But he went on to bigger and better things. After a stint with the Met Oval Academy, Savarese coached the Cosmos to three North American Soccer League championships in five years.

On Saturday night, he will try to make it four titles for himself in six years as he will guide the Timbers against host Atlanta United in the MLS Cup final.