BEAVERTON, Ore. – “For me, the most important thing is that we have to look at this game as every other game,” Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said on Tuesday, “that we go into it to try and get points and try to have a strong performance – an improvement on what we saw against the Galaxy.”
It’s the same view any previous Portland Timbers coach would have of a cross-country trip to face the New York Red Bulls, which they do this week on Saturday (4pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), and to the extent Savarese is cut from the same cloth, the feeling is the same. On the surface, Savarese’s approach to this weekend’s match in Harrison, New Jersey, sounds like the same run-of-the-mill, focused coach-speak you’d hear before any MLS match – the approach every coach takes to a season where progress comes in increments, not swathes.
But there is something about Savarese’s cloth that is distinctly different from his predecessors, something that even goes beyond his five years coaching the New York Cosmos or his time with the Red Bulls organization, as both a player and sporting director.
Savarese’s U.S. roots run deep on the East Coast, a lineage that dates back to his childhood visits from Caracas, Venezuela, to his college days at Long Island University. They persist to this day, with his family and friends still in New York, and will only enhance the feeling around Saturday’s game, when Savarese makes his first trip to Red Bull Arena as Timbers head coach.
“It feels special to go back to New York, to play against the Red Bulls …,” he admitted, “It feels a little bit some way like a rivalry, but it also feels like coming back home.”
He has been here before, having coached the Cosmos in U.S. Open Cup against the Red Bulls. Both those games still played to an identity Savarese has developed over the last four decades, one which, despite his Venezuelan roots and his world travels as a player, are distinctly New York. Now, having moved up to Major League Soccer as the head coach in Portland, Savarese is facing his first homecoming, with hundreds of friends and family expected to be in attendance for his first return home.
It’s the latest chapter in story that began almost four decades ago, when Savarese first visited New York as a 10-year-old. He had been to the States before, having made “that classic Disney World trip” voyage and visiting family he had in the Boston area. At 10, though, Savarese was truly coming into his love for soccer, something that led him to a Pelé soccer camp in the New York area.
It would be nine more years until Savarese laid his first real roots in his eventual home. Then, at 19, he had the opportunity to train with the team at Long Island University, who legend-to-be along the sidelines was building a powerhouse of players from all over the globe.
“I had two friends at LIU from Venezuela who were playing in college,” Savarese remembered. “So, I went to visit them. I had a chance to train with the team. It was fortunate because my youth coach was there that day, when I trained at the school, and he helped me meet with Arnie Ramirez, who was my coach, and say, ’Listen, take a leap of faith. I tell you, he’s going to do very well for you.’”
By that point, Savarese had already debuted for the Venezuelan national team and played club soccer in Italy, two milestones in a career that would take him to England and Major League Soccer. But the four seasons he spent at LIU helped lay a foundation in the United States, giving him a glimpse of what soccer in this country could become.
“We had so many people from everywhere: Africans, Jamaicans, South Americans, Central Americans,” Savarese said. By the time Savarese left LIU, Ramirez’s team was among the top-ranked men’s sides in the country.
“He went all over the place looking for players, and we had a very interesting group. He was able to create a very successful program at a very small school.”
The connection that began at LIU continued after college, when Savarese played with the Long Island Rough Riders of the United States Interregional Soccer League. In two years, that time gave way to his MLS breakthrough, when he was an original member of the Red Bulls’ precursor, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
He was part of teams that featured Italian and Milan standout Roberto Donadoni and Brazilian World Cup-winner Branco. U.S. legends Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas were among the early MetroStars, as was Tim Howard, who initially broke through with the New York/New Jersey in 1998.
It was all part of a three-year run where, having accumulated 41 goals, Savarese became a club icon, so much so that, shortly after his career ended in 2004, he joined the MetroStars as their head of youth development.
“At that time [in 1996], the league that was starting with nice crowds, also playing in Giants Stadium,” Savarese remembered about his MetroStars past. “Then to transition to when Red Bull took over, that even I remember we were participating in an event for the first match, they invited all the ex-MetroStars players and all the Cosmos players, both integrating into the Red Bulls’ new era.”
Even though Savarese left the Red Bulls organization in 2007, his status as a local icon was still evident the next year. Then, at the ground breaking of Red Bull Arena – among icons like Meola, Bruce Arena and John Harkes -- the original MetroStar was there, tossing a shovel’s full of dirt as the area’s next iconic venue was about to lay its cornerstone.
Over the last five years, Savarese’s connection with New York has been embodied by his role with the New York Cosmos, where he become the figurehead for a brand that has endured since the original NASL. During that time, a new generation of soccer fans have gotten their first impression of somebody who, as a player, cemented his place as one of MLS’ first local icons.
Though he would never call himself an icon, Savarese is aware of his connection to New York. He knows the various lines that draw him back to his adopted home town. He knows he will always have a special connection to a place which, as student, player, executive and coach, offered him so much.
“I’ve been in New York for a long time, so it’s always great to be able to go back to New York, to see so many people that I know, to see family, of course,” he said. “I’m also going to a stadium, a club that I know very well. I played for the MetroStars. I worked for both the MetroStars and Red Bulls. It’s always good to be able to go back to New York.”
That return comes after two NASL titles to the Cosmos, success that’s vaulted Savarese to the next step in his career. That step, though, has cast him back in the place he was 20 years ago, when he was welcome world traveler, searching for the fit that would take his career to the next level.
“Being away from New York, I’ve done it before,” he said, when asked about his new job taking him so far from home. “From Caracas, I went to Italy, so I’m used to it …
“I have a love for New York, but also I am very content to be in Portland.”
On Saturday, two halves of Savarese’s life come together: the past and present; the professional and personal; the legacy and the ambition. For a man focused on three points, though, don’t expect him to see things on those terms. He knows returning to New York is special. Just don’t expect him to dwell on it.