Giovanni Savarese, Timbers vs. LAFC, 6.1.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

One-on-One with Giovanni Savarese: Back to Providence Park, rivalries new and old, and the rest of 2019

PORTLAND, Ore. – From his office above the team’s Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese can see both of the facility’s fields: the immaculate grass pitch that serves as MLS team’s main ground; as well as the adjacent, turf pitch the organization’s United Soccer League team, Timbers 2, makes home. On a normal day, the teams practice in tandem, with a small cadre of players occasionally shuffling in between first-team practice and, toward the day’s end, tactical work with the other group. Today, however, only T2 head coach Cameron Knowles’ group is on the field.

The Timbers are enjoying their second prolonged break of the season. The first came in March, when a weekend without a game granted a small reprieve from 12 games on the road. This week, however, there’s no travel – not even to return home. Instead of being jet lagged and trying to settle back into a routine, Savarese and his team have been able to enjoy a few days off, prolonged by the later-than-usual Wednesday call to the first week’s training.

“It’s great to have a little break, right now,” Savarese says, “but it’s especially great to have this break at home.”

Practice is still over three hours away. By this time, noon, it’s usually over. Coaches and players are off the field, having lunch, or getting some extra work in the gym or training room. Instead, today, players won’t be required to report for more than hour, giving the coaching staff a longer runway to ramp up their work.

It’s as good a moment to stop and reflect as any, something Savarese is usually reluctant to do midseason. A reporter from The Athletic found that out last week, when asking for perspective on the current campaign during the coach’s weekly press conference.

“What was the biggest challenge, for you, in terms of getting your team right?” The Athletic asked a week ago, hoping Savarese would reflect back on the previous three months. The Timbers coach handled the question the same way he did a year ago.

“We’ll talk at the end of the year,” he replied, buffering his retort with a smile and nod.

Home openers have a way of making coaches reflective, though, especially when they’re long-awaited ones. With still a week before the Timbers’ next game – a mid-week, U.S. Open Cup match in Tacoma, Washington, against Seattle Sounders FC (7:30pm PT, ESPN+) – Savarese can temporarily engage a broader perspective. His thoughts are not only with home openers, right now, but with his year-and-a-half in Portland.

“It’s been amazing to get to learn more about Portland, as a city,” he says. “How friendly people are, how inclusive – the quality of life you have in this city. I feel so blessed to be able to be in Portland.

“The people have so much passion for many things, especially their sports teams. For the Trail Blazers, for the Thorns, and for the Timbers. Our following is incredible … For me, being here for more than a year, I appreciate everything that I have seen and how the people have treated me in Portland.”

The year’s first game in the new Providence Park only enhanced those feelings. In front of a capacity crowd of 25,218, the Timbers opened a record-breaking weekend at the venue, and while a 3-2 loss to Los Angeles FC struck a disappointing note, the atmosphere of 2019’s home opener left Savarese feeling “very fortunate to have” the Timbers’ support.

“For this organization to invest in renovating a stadium that was already great, but to bring it to a different level with details that make the stadium unique, that make it into a different class,” he says, “The atmosphere of the fans that came in, the energy, the passion …

“The fans are the soul of the stadium, and I can tell you that, here, I feel that you live soccer. You live the truth of what soccer is all about. The only thing that I can say to [Timbers’ fans] is, ‘Thank you.’”

Image: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers

As with every game, the festivities in the stands were a major part of Providence Park’s spectacle, but in a way that transcends a typical regular-season match, the stories on the field resonated past the final whistle. The quality of Los Angeles FC’s support was part of that to Savarese, who comments on what the traveling fans contributed to the home opener’s feel, but when I try to draw the coach into comparisons, in terms of post-match conclusions, with last year’s 1-0 home loss to the Seattle Sounders, he sees a distinction “that is very important.”

“You mentioned Seattle. I have to take the time to say that, definitely, that’s our true rival. I said a few times after the game that our games against LAFC are rivalry matches, and I think they have become that, but definitely not to the level of Seattle …

“In our games against Seattle, they’re competitive. They’re battles. And most of all there’s a mutual respect. That is important, and it has to be maintained, even when there’s a lot at stake in a match: when you’re playing for your fans; when you’re playing for three points, to try to reach finals; when you’re playing to continue to make history; when you’re trying to claim bragging rights. This rivalry has history that even goes beyond MLS, like the Portland Timbers have history. I know other clubs are trying to build that history, and I hope, as the years pass, they are able to do so.”

It wasn’t just the scoreline that had both sides speaking in terms of rivalry after Saturday’s match. Ending with sideline altercations near and beyond the game’s final whistle, the game reflected a tense dynamic that’s developed between the teams since LAFC’s debut over a year ago. In reaction to the match, debates about style, tactics, and refereeing have seized part of MLS’ national dialogue.

“These types of matches are the ones that allow MLS to grow,” Savarese explains, "because the quality of the game is important.

“We want soccer to be played the right way. We want to entertain the fans. To continue improving the league’s level, we have to continue adding those type of quality players – players who can change the game at any moment. The Valeris, the Blancos, the Velas, the Lodeiros, and others who aren’t even in the league right now.

“Those type of players bring something extra on the field. They’re very important to the growth of the league. We have to make sure that we always remember that. We need to protect them as much as the other players in the league.”

For Savarese, though, those freedoms can only go so far.

“Those players have a responsibility. They have to understand that to be treated in a way that’s best for their game, they need to be held accountable. They need to treat the game the way it should be treated. That way, the game remains as pure as possible.

“That goes for tackles. That goes for dives. That goes does for foul language that sometimes goes beyond respect. We need to be careful.”

This balance creates a challenge dynamic for referees. The league’s most talented players need to be protected, but they can’t be given carte blanche. In a sport that’s already too fast for one, three, or four sets of eyes, expecting perfect decision in soccer’s grey areas may be asking too much.

“Referees are human,” Savarese reminds, “and there are going to be mistakes. It’s their responsibility, and they need to be as consistent as possible. But we need to understand they’re going to miss a tackle, or they’re going to look at a player that dove and think (the contact) was worse than what it was.”

“I’m all for making sure the game stays as the beautiful game,” he says, “but it is important everyone respects everyone involved in the game and continues to support the growth of our league. [The Timbers] have our history, and we’re very proud of what we have created, but this club is humble and hard-working, because we have a lot of ways that we can still grow. So, I couldn’t be prouder of how the players always conduct themselves, and I feel very proud to be part of what this club stands for, for the city of Portland.”

The sentiment leads Savarese to memories of the fall of 2016, when he was first being interviewed for the Timbers’ head coaching job. “I opened the doors to the (Providence Park) field,” he remembers, “and there was no one in the stadium. What I felt in that moment was very similar to what I felt in the times that I’ve been in true soccer environments: with the (Venezuela) national team; when I played in Europe, in England, in Italy; when I played in South America; in other very competitive matches. I felt it was true soccer.”

It also leads to reflections on last season, even if, in trying to stay in the moment, Savarese couches those memories in present-day terms: “We’ve had an unbelievable group of guys ... We’re going to give everything that we have to our fans, and we’re going to try to compete again, this year, as we did last year: going all the way to a final, losing to a tough team in a tough environment with a great coach like Tata Martino, who did a great job and showed class all the time.”

It also leads to a vision of 2019; at least, the rest of 2019. The first practice of the week is now less than three hours away, and for the first time this season, the session won’t follow a game on the road. With a home-heavy schedule over the season’s final 19 rounds, Portland will be striving to climb back toward the top of the Western Conference. To do that, in Savarese’s view, the team needs to maintain a level approach:

“We have to play with an understanding that we have to get the job done on the field. [Making up points at home is] not something we can worry about. We have to go on the field and perform …”

Forecasting that performance, Savarese's confidence strikes a familiar note.

“Our guys are going to continue to grow,” he predicts. “We still have room for improvement, which makes me very excited about the potential we still have, as a team.”

"We hope this league continues to grow. It already has such great infrastructure, teams, and coaches. All of us involved have a responsibility: to continue to work for the growth of this league."