Giovanni Savarese: “For me, the most important thing is the players are comfortable with the ball.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
Note: This story was written in 2013 only days before Giovanni Savarese made his debut as Cosmos coach. It has been updated near the end of the article. Savarese is 50-year-old.
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — On the “whiteboard” behind Giovanni Savarese’s desk at the Mitchel Athletic Complex, the entire Cosmos roster is written in, in numerical order on the right-hand side.
In the middle of the board, a depth chart shows the pecking order at each position, most likely subject to change at a moment’s notice, depending on a player’s form and/or health.
There is also what some soccer observers “classified” information that cannot be revealed to the world or Savarese might have to eliminate this writer.
He did not say that or make any threats in any way, but let’s say, it’s better off left unsaid.
Saying that, Savarese has always been a student of the game, leaving few stones unturned from lessons learned from his playing days way back at Long Island University from 1990-1993.
Former Long Island Rough Riders teammate and one-time U.S. international goalkeeper Tony Meola indicated it was inevitable that Savarese would enter into coaching. During one of the Rough Riders’ long bus rides throughout the northeast during the 1995 season, Meola and Savarese would sit in the back of the bus, talking about many subjects, including soccer and coaching.
“He would constantly talk tactics,” Meola said in a recent interview. “It was pretty obvious he would get into it.
“He’s been coaching quite a while. He said to me all along that he wanted to coach. He didn’t say to me that he would do X, Y, Z. It’s no long about the X’s and O’s. It’s how you manage the players. He’s a guy who everybody respects and gravitate toward him.”
Savarese earned that respect as a lethal goal-scorer with the Rough Riders and New York/New Jersey MetroStars and one of the most popular players on both teams. He doesn’t remind anyone about his scoring prowess; that’s in the past. But it has followed him like an imaginary badge of honor through the years.
But it seemed Savarese was destined to become a coach.
“He was one of our captains so obviously I saw leadership qualities in him,” said former Long Island University men’s head coach Arnie Ramirez. “He also had very good coaches in Alfonso Mondelo, Carlos Quieroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira.”
Asked what sort of advice he would give Savarese, his former coach at LIU, Arnie Ramirez responded: “I believe he will become an excellent coach because of his personality and his knowledge of the game. He knows how to treat people. He is an educated person. Ask him to play Beethoven’s Fifth symphony on the piano. And he comes from a very solid, stable and lovely family.
“My only advice to him is to be sincere with the people. Always be straight with your players. He is not there to be the most popular person; he is there to do a job and get the Cosmos back to playing attractive soccer. I have no doubt in my mind that he will become an excellent coach.”
So did Cosmos captain and center back Carlos Mendes.
“From what we have experienced already, he gives a lot of confidence to his players,” he said. “He’s always fun to be around. He expects us to work hard. He expects a lot out of his players. But to play for a coach who has a lot of confidence in you. He gives us the freedom to play. So, as a player it’s great.
“He’s very hands on. He’s very communicative. He’s very straight forward. As a player that’s where you expect. You know where you stand. He’ll talk to you, and he’ll give the players confidence. The whole staff in general. Our staff incredible. Guys who have played at the highest level and who can help us.”
Before he made his debut as Cosmos coach, Savarese talked about his coaching career.
He said he learned many lessons as a player that he took into coaching.
“Take nothing for granted and everything comes from hard work,” he said. “If you want to reach a success, the only way is to work hard towards it. And always be more prepared and grow as a player or as a coach. Work very hard to reach your goals.”
Like it or not, sometimes you get stereotyped. Savarese was a high-scoring striker. Many soccer observers felt the Cosmos would be an out-and-out attacking team. Nothing wrong about that, but after three decades in the game, Savarese knew that any team needed balance.
“It’s like saying that if I’m a goalkeeper, everyone is going to play with their hands inside the field,” he said. “You have to be able to have a balance. You have to be able to, yes be on an offensive team that attacks with numbers. But you can never attack without a defensive balance as well.
“You have to be sure when you lose the ball, you have to be in a good position to recover the ball to be able to protect the attack from in whatever area and try to steal the ball as soon as possible so we can continue to possess the ball. In the end, it’s overall balance we needed on the team.”
Which should tell you something about his coaching philosophy. It is about the ball, always about the ball.
“For me, the most important thing is the players are comfortable with the ball,” he said. “The players are able to interchange positions, like a team that is able to move the ball quickly and able to create 1 v 1 situations in order to be able to get an advantage on a team that is sound tactically in order to be able to understand the situations a game might present.
“Every time I have coached my biggest intentions has been the team leading the game in trying to have the ball and play on the ground most of the time. This is my philosophy.”
Two local coaches influence Savarese — former Rough Riders and MetroStars head coach Alfonso Mondelo, the MLS technical director of competitions, and Ramirez.
“There’s a lot of things that they did right that allowed me to be able to progress,” he said. “Arnie, his passion to the game, his determination wanting to teach not only be a coach that brought points inside the field, but also outside the field are very important. More than the 90 minutes you play to be a professional. Arnie was always that kind of coach who always wanted us to be better in everything that we did. It was definitely something that he brought up. His commitment to us to be always fit.
“Alfonso, his tactical works, his passion as well, his care about details. His idea was to create a team that was comfortable with the ball. So, both of them left me with a lot of good things. Both of them are a sounding board. In any case in any situation, I could always turn to them and continue to look for more advice in my career.”
Some of that advice might have been watch out when the axe might fall. Both Mondelo and Ramirez have been fired from coaching positions, and like it or not, Savarese suffered the same fate with the Red Bulls when he was bounced as youth director in 2007. He was fired by Marc de Grandpre, the current Red Bulls general manager who was managing director of the club at the time.
It was American soccer’s equivalent if Real Madrid dumped the great Alfredo Di Stefano.
Needless to say, it left a bad taste in Savarese’s mouth.
“It was very sour, very difficult,” Savarese said. “It came in a moment where there was a lot of hard work, Actually, I remember it was a great article in Soccer America saying the [Red Bulls] Academy was one of the best at the time. The decision made did not have anything to do with the person, the reputation, my work. It just came from a person who just did not understand about soccer. He had no idea about what the connection is between a player and a club, had no understanding of the importance of being in that position to carry. He came from a different world that was difficult to understand what soccer was. It was very difficult to work with a person like that.
“In the end, I took a stand, I wasn’t going to accept this person to be the same way he had kept on being. with his approach to the game. I am always a purist, I’m 100 percent to soccer. At that point, he felt it was his decision to separate me from my job. It was very sour because it was a club that I loved being a part of. I had a connection with the players. We created a great program. Having to separate on the way it was done, an incompetent person, it was a little bit difficult. Year after year, you leave it alone. I come from a mindset that I like to do things the right way. I didn’t want to do anything to the detriment of the club because of the passion I had for the club.
“At the end, it is forgotten. It is done. He allowed me to become a stronger, better person. Those experiences are the one that make you grow a lot more.”
Savarese had that opportunity to grow a lot more, first as top coach with the Met Oval, then in a similar capacity B.W. Gottschee. A year after his Red Bulls dismissal, Savarese’s job and reputation was vindicated as he was selected as Under-16 national coach of the year by the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
“It was in some way it was a reward of continuing the same job I was doing already with the Red Bulls,” he said.
Another door swung open as the Cosmos offered him the role as head coach of a team returning to competitive action in the North American Soccer League in some 29 years. It was an offer that Savarese could not refuse.
During five years in charge, the Cosmos reached the Soccer Bowl on four occasions, winning it three times — in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
With the NASL closing up shop in 2017, yet another door opened as the Timbers hired Savarese as head coach.
After finishing in fifth place in the Western Conference, Portland has rolled through the playoffs upsetting favorites FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City. The Timbers lost to Atlanta United in the 2018 final.
On Saturday, the Timbers will host New York City FC for MLS Cup glory at Providence Park, Ore. (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).
And another final for Giovanni Savarese on his coaching journey.