Giovanni Savarese #3, Timbers @ Galaxy, 3.4.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Portland Timbers' draw at FC Dallas reminds us: We are still learning about Giovanni Saverese's approach

Among the dominant themes of the Portland Timbers preseason were two tactical concepts: the high press and the high defensive line. After years of the Timbers rarely using either, Portland was set to be adopt both; at least, so we were told.

To witness the questions Giovanni Savarese answered over his first two months as Timbers head coach was to see a picture emerge, one of a coach, unwavering in his beliefs, who may return home each night to light incense under a Marcelo Bielsa portrait before praying to his Arrigo Sacchi idol.

Savarese’s philosophy was portrayed as something immutable, but come kickoff Saturday in Frisco, Texas, that approach had, well, “muted.” The high defensive line was gone, as was the style of pressing we’d seen at the top of his formation. And that formation, itself, had changed, with Savarese moving away from both the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2 looks we’d seen to that point in his tenure.

In their place, Savarese appeared to call upon his Italian roots, both in formation and style. The shape was a 4-3-2-1, one that gave his defense more protection as well as an additional midfielder to help connect through the middle. The style, also, changed from one that was so focused on moving urgently through the transition phase and launching people forward.

Saturday’s was a much more deliberate team, playing at a tempo you’re more likely to see in the old Serie A, one that was reflected as much in the moments Diego Valeri slowed play as it was in the space the Timbers offered the opposing defenders (Savarse had three stints in Italy during his playing career). Just as the game had its lulls when Dallas, unable to pass through the Timbers’ shape, circulated the ball high and into wide spaces, so it paused in the moments when Portland, relying on connections between Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Fanendo Adi, elected not to press the issue.

After averaging 428.5 passes per game against the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls, the Timbers only had 325 passes against Dallas, and while some of that difference can be explained by game state (most of Saturday’s match was played at an even score; Timbers trailed for most of their first two matches), the difference is still pronounced.


Game 1

Game 2

Game 3


LA Galaxy

NY Red Bulls

FC Dallas

Passes for




Passes vs.








All stats: Opta


Dallas did have 489 passes on Saturday – 132 more than the Timbers had allowed in either of their first two games – but look at the distribution from FCD’s midfield trio, Mauro Díaz (10), Carlos Gruezo (7) and Jacori Hayes (15). On the left is the triad’s successful passes; the right, their incomplete ones.

This is the plan when you set up and play as Savarese did. You’ll allow the ball to move wide, along the edges of your Christmas tree, and rely on your deep block with midfielders guarding each channel to kill anything going forward. When Diaz, Gruezo and Hayes wanted to play wide, they could do so at will. When they wanted to go forward, into the attacking zone? Their will was irrelevant.

Higher up the field, we also saw the virtue of Savarese’s tweaks. We’d talked about, before, how Valeri wasn’t getting the ball in dangerous spaces, and in last week’s preview content, we worried about how Portland would deal with a strong Dallas defensive midfield. Thanks to the formation change, Savarese was able to get his two most dangerous players into wide spaces, on the ball, and able to face a middle of the park that would feature Adi, their counterpart (one of Blanco and Valeri), and, if everything goes right, one of Cristhian Paredes or Diego Chara charging forward.

Here are Blanco’s (left) and Valeri’s (right) completed passes. The quantity, here, isn’t as important as the location: out to the flanks, away from where Gruezo or Hayes could force them into a rash decision.

With that in mind, let’s look back at Portland’s goal. Valeri gets the ball in space, wide right. Blanco makes a run toward the middle, opening up the pass to Adi. Adi plays the ball to Blanco who, cutting back in, has room to pull the trigger or find an open Paredes running into the left of the Dallas area:

This is not what we were told, over the first two months of his tenure, Savarese’s teams were supposed to do. They weren’t supposed to be sitting back. Weren’t supposed to be playing this system. They weren’t supposed to be getting out-passed by 174 balls, and, when they were generating chances, it was supposed to be from pressure high up the field, not execution closer to Portland’s goal.

In another way, though, this is exactly what we should have expected from Savarese, if we remember what we were told before. Prior to his arrival in Portland, he was said to be a flexible manager. Those who followed his time with the New York Cosmos said he would use his entire squad and start the players who would best that week’s tasks. We were told there was no dogma when it came to Savarese, yet in our fixation on pressing and high lines, we began imagining a very dogmatic approach.

There are, no doubt, philosophies that underpin Savarese’s soccer. You saw some in the way Portland executed on Saturday’s goal, just as you saw some in the manner Adi would steer Dallas’ play into certain areas, Portland’s attacking midfielder would stay wide and, once Dallas moved into the space, Parades or Chara would burst forward to provide pressure, as FCD tried to break between lines.

Those basic ideas – hurt them where you can; force them where you want– are not going to change. On some level, every coach ascribes to them. But the bigger, broader theories about Savarese can’t be learned in two months. We’re going to have to wait and see with the new Portland boss, because as he showed with Saturday’s game plan, he won’t be defined by one approach.