Giovanni Savarese is saying -- and doing -- the right things in Portland ahead of match in Seattle
Giovanni Savarese of the Portland Timbers is a head coach who speaks in broad, unspecific platitudes. Asked to define his team's identity, he reaches for cliches about collective effort and buy-in, about taking things one day at a time, about the value of competition for playing time.
"Everyone has to fight for the entire match," Savarese told ESPN FC in a recent phone interview when prodded to hone in on what he most hopes to see out of his team. "Every challenge that we face, everyone must come together to face it."
That Saverese's sentiments are cliche don't make them any less true. And it's obvious that the first-year coach is doing something right: Heading into Saturday afternoon's showdown with rivals Seattle Sounders, Portland is unbeaten in 11 games in all competitions. It hasn't lost in Major League Soccer action since April 8, and recently advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup.
The Sounders represent a useful contrast. They enter the Cascadian derby having lost four of six in MLS, and having been bounced out of the Open Cup by minor-league Sacramento. Whereas the Timbers head into the weekend with 23 points and in fifth place in the Western Conference, their eternal rivals sit 11 points back, nearly doubled up.
And yet what separates the teams isn't work ethic, or collective buy-in. For all of its struggles -- it has scored only 11 goals in 14 league matches -- Seattle hasn't seemed to have mailed it in. Its players run hard from start to finish. There's little indication of any serious locker room discord. The Timbers are just better: their key players are closer to their primes, and their up-and-comers are more talented as a whole.
Savarese has done an admirable job in building upon the foundation left by predecessor Caleb Porter, while adding some twists of his own.
Porter's squads often felt as though they had some underlying fragility, a lack of necessary steeliness. Savarese's version suffered through some speed bumps early on -- giving up four goals to the New York Red Bulls in late March, taking a 2-0 lead in Orlando only to concede three times in the final 10 minutes to lose 3-2 -- but it has lately proven resilient. A hard-earned 1-1 draw at league-leading Atlanta United last weekend was the most recent impressive result.
Savarese is looking like an inspired choice to succeed Porter, the big personality who experienced both lofty highs (the 2015 MLS Cup championship) and noteworthy lows (failing to qualify for the postseason in two of his five seasons). Savarese, who grew up in Venezuela and spent a lengthy playing career in the United States, feels like a steadier hand. His New York Cosmos won three NASL titles in his five years in charge, and he was considered one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country before joining the Timbers.
If not always quotable -- "Every transition has a process"; "The only way to accomplish good things is by working for each other" -- Savarese has also obviously convinced his players of his vision.
Nor did Porter leave the cupboard bare. Diego Valeri is the reigning league MVP, and first-year forward Samuel Armenteros has been a revelation. This is still a team with game-breaking talent all over the field, which separates it from its opponents on Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
In past years, even while they waited until the summer to turn it on, the Sounders have felt as though they possessed an extra gear. That might not be the case in 2018. Their veteran spine of Clint Dempsey, Osvaldo Alonso and Chad Marshall is showing its age. With Jordan Morris out for the year with an ACL tear, the attack lacks punch. Even if Seattle is to add somebody like rumored acquisition Raul Ruidiaz, any chance of a genuine turnaround is running out of time.
Sounders-Timbers games have a way of stripping teams bare and revealing their true selves. Savarese seems to be building something special, and that should be obvious on Saturday. As for Seattle, it might not like what it sees.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.