Savarese equipped for unique culture of Portland after Cosmos reign
When the Portland Timbers unexpectedly parted ways with Caleb Porter this offseason, the immediate popular discussion outside of Portland was that this was a story about Porter, not the Timbers.
The subsequent speculation linking Porter with the vacant U.S. job tended to glide over the fact that the Portland Timbers are a very particular organization within MLS. Their leadership understand they are as much a cultural presence within the city as a footballing one, and their coaching requirements reflect that philosophy.
It's that belief, as much as the standards of success on the field, that shapes expectations for Giovanni Savarese: Can he not only coach the Timbers but represent them?
Speaking with ESPN FC, Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson was clear that part of the unique draw of Savarese was not only his standalone coaching ability, but his "tremendous appetite" to embrace the unique culture of Portland as a soccer city.
"Other candidates talked about the vocal fanbase and asked how much we listened to them," says Wilkinson. "Gio said, 'The fans are part of what drew me to the job.' He wants the scrutiny, to be continually relevant in Portland. We're an organization that really tries to identify with the city and the fan base, and with Gio we felt he was someone our players would identify with, but also our fans would love. And that is second to the fact that we felt he could help us be successful."
Savarese, of course, had come from another club occupying a unique cultural position, in the New York Cosmos. In New York, he'd had to thread the needle of being his own man with his own coaching ideas, while also dealing with an expectation that the Cosmos continually act as both NASL flagship and as a kind of proof of concept of the league's viability. On top of that, he had to negotiate the sometimes incompatible forces of the weight and expectation of the Cosmos history and the reality of their contemporary status in the New York market.
Savarese did it without complaint and latterly did so with a degree of technical and personal adaptability that for Wilkinson "ticked all the boxes" when it came to any doubts about the step up from NASL to MLS and the particular environment of the Timbers.
Due diligence had already convinced Wilkinson and owner Merritt Paulson that Savarese was a match:
"We had looked at his games, we had analyzed them," Wilkinson said. "We had a breakdown of his every statistical component relative to how we value our own, and there was a trend, a direct correlation between what he had done and what we want to continue to do."
Wilkinson describes what he calls "non-negotiables" in that regard: "We have to be attack-minded, we have to play the game in the opposing half with possession, we have to be able to basically control games and take a dominant approach. And this philosophy has been built over time ... A lot of what he had done in New York with the Cosmos resonated with what we expected."
And it was clear that what resonated was mutual. Wilkinson recalls a game between Portland and the New York Red Bulls early in Diego Valeri's time with the Timbers. It was well before the buzz around Valeri that would culminate in last year's league MVP award, but watching as an ESPN analyst that day, Savarese had singled out Valeri and said something to the effect of "He may not be a name DP, but he will be a phenomenal DP."
And by the time Savarese came to interview for the Timbers, it was apparent that he'd continued to keep close tabs on how they, and Valeri, had developed in the interim. "He knew the organization front and back," says Wilkinson.
With that knowledge and mutual respect, Timbers insiders have suggested that the buy-in to Savarese's humble but clearsighted man-management style has been immediate. It perhaps doesn't hurt that he's been gifted with a roster that, post-Darlington Nagbe, has the allocation resources to be as well balanced as any the organization has ever seen, and also given the backhanded gift of low expectations. The Timbers topped the West last year, but were not mentioned in a recent MLSsoccer.com list of conference contenders.
That will suit Savarese and his new employers just fine. It's a Portland kind of story.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.