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Opinion: Savarese’s Price of Success

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How Gio and Portland must navigate the club’s evolution

MLS: New York City FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

When former Portland Timbers’ coach Caleb Porter made the decision to step down from his position with the club, it sent shockwaves through the league. Porter, an institution of Portland soccer, was just a month removed from his second finish on the very top of the Western Conference, four years removed from his inaugural Coach of the Year honors, and two years removed from the club’s first championship.

So instead of retooling the roster for another run at the silverware, the Timbers found themselves in a rebuilding phase: With the introduction of a new manager comes changes in culture, tactics, and roster.

When Giovanni Savarese was hired away from the NASL’s New York Cosmos as Porter’s replacement, some interesting similarities could be seen between the two managers: both were former players, both had no previous first-division management experience, both had made a name for themselves through player development (Porter as head coach of the University of Akron and the USA U-23 squad; Savarese as head of youth development with the New York Red Bulls and head coach of Cosmos), and both were tactical, intelligent managers with a desire to prove themselves.

But similarities about the state of the club at the time each manager took over are few and far between. When Caleb Porter accepted the head coach role, the Timbers had just fired their club’s first coach, John Spencer, after a lackluster 18 months at the helm. Portland had no winning pedigree within the MLS, and under interim manager Gavin Wilkinson, they finished with the third worst record in the league.

Thanks in large part to the path blazed by Caleb Porter in his five years leading Portland, Giovanni Savarese stepped into a club and culture with an expectation for winning football. With a talented but aging core, a new era in the league’s evolution that demands more depth and talent to compete than ever before, and a passionate and hungry supporters group, Savarese found himself wielding a double-edged sword. Portland’s coaching job is simultaneously the most covetable and daunting job in the league, with opportunities and expectations sky high.

As Savarese embarked on his inaugural season, even from the outside looking in, you could practically feel the pressure created around the new head coach. With every loss, as Savarese worked to implement his system, the public would question the hire while simultaneously bemoaning the mysterious departure of his predecessor. With every win, as Savarese adjusted his tactics to earn results, the fanbase’s expectation to “win now” balloons, masking the realities of a club and roster that’s just beginning their evolution to a new tactical identity.

Make no mistake: Giovanni Savarese will ultimately have his way when it comes to the identity and tactics of the Portland Timbers. Make no mistake: Savarese’s Timbers will not be famous for being out-possessed by 5 to 15 percent per game and playing seven players defensively. Make no mistake: Portland’s evolution will sometimes feel like two steps forward, and one step back.

What Coach Savarese has done thus far is admirable. The switch to a defensive formation, one that Savarese was not known to use in his previous tenure, was calculated. Beyond appeasing the fanbase, Savarese had to earn the respect and trust of his players. His tactical flexibility is a tribute to his ingenuity, finding ways to earn 15 straight positive results, despite roster deficiencies, and an out-of-character playing style. But the fact that Savarese and the Timbers have only found one or two formations that they can successfully earn results with hints that the team and roster is not yet where the coach wants it to be.

With a heightened level of competition comes faster adjustments by opposing managers — and the Timbers’ defensive formations have been exploited. Attacking teams have displayed more tactical patience: not overcommitting numbers to break down the defensive line, but instead probing and testing players and parts of Portland’s formation that display signs of weakness.

Defensively, teams have found ways to squash Portland’s previously deadly counterattack. They know the Timbers are unwilling to commit numbers in attack, so — instead of hanging back, for fear of Portland’s attackers blazing past them — defenders now press up on the initial outlet pass, forcing the Timbers counterattack to reset to a defensive midfielder. With only a few players joining in the counterattack, teams maintain a stronger shape in the middle of the pitch and are content to watch Portland carry the ball down the flanks, away from the threatening zones for the likes of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Samuel Armenteros.

Early in his tenure, the decisions Giovanni Savarese makes will create just as many questions as they answer. Where does club legend and last year’s MVP Valeri fit in a roster that requires more pace than he appears able to muster? When Portland’s big three fail to score, where will goals come from? Does Portland need to acquire a possession-based midfielder, or is someone on the roster able to fill that role? What of Chara, and both his defensive partner and a long-term replacement? And with a now ballooning number of talented young players on the roster, and with the Timbers’ USL side, how much is Portland willing to sacrifice short-term success for the sake of young player development?

Some of the decisions to be made will be highly expected. Portland will progress towards ball-dominant, attack-minded soccer. For anyone that believes that the Timbers have found their tactical approach, they’ll be hard pressed to find examples of dominant clubs that have used both a highly defensive formation and maintained such a low percentage of possession game in and game out. To use a cliche saying, “While it’s important to win, it’s more important to win ‘the right way’.”

Other decisions will be surprising. The casual fan’s perspective of who deserves to be in the starting XI or sit on the bench is influenced by past iterations of the team, not Gio Savarese’s contemporary view of the roster. Players who are given opportunities, and those who will be moved on, will be unexpected. Some of those decisions could be incredibly painful. Savarese’s teams were notorious for pressing high defensively, a tactic that did not suit former Timber Fanendo Adi, and a role that Valeri struggles to fill. The discussion about if Valeri has a starting XI role moving into next year is very much simmering on the back burner.

But Savarese has been adamant in his approach, as any coach should be: No manager will ever achieve high levels of success playing a style he does not believe in. Savarese values fast, two-way players that have a quick touch on the ball and are flexible in the positions they play. Evidence of this is apparent game to game, where Coach Savarese will deploy players in positions that the club has not seen before. Why? Because Giovanni Savarese’s evaluation of the roster is ongoing. His conclusions on capabilities and needs will define the moves made by the Front Office during the off season.

This vision for the club has been echoed by owner Merritt Paulson and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson. A part of why Savarese quickly rose to the top of the list of candidates last winter was due to a matching perspective on the style of play that Portland should deploy. While no one will complain about the run of success the Timbers enjoyed over the summer, the focus for the Paulson and Wilkinson is still on implementing a brand of soccer that sells tickets and wins trophies. Much more vital than Portland seeing wins and draws in their record column in 2018 is tangible progression within the roster, the discipline and intelligence they play with, and the instinctive identity they create for themselves. These are aspects to a club’s brand that will define long-term success.

For all of Giovanni Savarese’s experience, it’s important to remember that this is new to him as well — learning and adjusting alongside the roster he coaches, to a new league, and a new level of competition. There will be mistakes — lineup decisions vs. Vancouver, DC United, and Sporting Kansas City in back-to-back-to-back games come to mind — but there will also be astounding moments and stretches that flash the intelligence, savvy, and tactical genius that this manager is capable of. One thing is certain, though: Coach Savarese has earned the right, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “to do it his way.”