Photo by Jeremy Olson/www.digitalgopher.com 10/29/2016

The Angle

Minnesota United Coaching Candidates: the Case for Giovanni Savarese

by on 4 November 2016

This past Saturday, Minnesota United closed its lower-division chapter in poetic fashion: a gritty 1-0 defeat to the New York Cosmos. In a way, it was the perfect way to summarize the NASL era for United: the team showed a lot of heart, was tactically well-prepared, and was just nipped in the bud by a stifling defense and in-form Jimmy Maurer.

In a way, it also may have been the perfect segue into the MLS era.

The coach of the Cosmos since their inception in 2013, Gio Savarese has turned the club into the flagship of the NASL. Despite having no previous coaching experience, Savarese has fashioned the Cosmos into a juggernaut, able to simultaneously manage large personalities and bring out the best in role players. On Wednesday, Grant Wahl cited him as a candidate for United’s MLS head coaching post. After the United match, FiftyFive.One was able to catch up with Savarese and ask him about his views on the United organization, as well as asking him if there had been any talk of him signing on as the head coach.

“First of all, I have to say that Minnesota gave us a good match… Always tough to come and play here. Big credit to the organization. It’s a class act… Manny and I go way back, to 1996. Lagos is a class act and a friend, and he’s done a tremendous job… Right now, the most important thing is to concentrate on the game next week and trying to win the title. We’ll see what happens in the future… MLS is always an interesting possibility for any coach. When we finish, we’ll start looking at next year and what options are there.” – Gio Savarese

Savarese isn’t just another candidate, though, and he should be considered a top candidate to take over the Loons.

It’s Who You Know

Despite the Cosmos being his first coaching gig, Savarese is no stranger to the U.S. soccer scene. The Venezuelan forward left his home country for Greek American AA in 1990, eventually moving to the Long Island Rough Riders in 1994. After scoring 27 goals in 37 games, he was signed by the NY/NJ MetroStars for the inaugural MLS season.

Also brought in by the MetroStars that year: future Minnesota United sporting director Manny Lagos.

Savarese and Lagos were teammates for two seasons. While Lagos was fighting a knee injury for a duration of his tenure, Savarese scored 41 goals across his three seasons with the MetroStars, ultimately setting a club record that would stand until 2009. He was traded to the Revolution in 1999, eventually moving to Italy the next year. This was his first venture into the European leagues, where he would play a year with Swansea City and another with Millwall before returning home to Venezuela in 2002.

In 2005, he rejoined the MetroStars as the head of youth development, helping set up a strong youth structure which has endured to this day. It was in 2010 that he joined the Cosmos, first as the Director of their Academy and eventually as a head coach. It was here that he reconnected with Lagos, as United and the Cosmos forged something of a rivalry and often found themselves one after the other in the league’s table.

The Cosmos Chapter

Savarese is winding down his fourth year at the helm of the Cosmos, with the club acting as the favorite to win their third title in four years. This year may be his most impressive yet and should net him the league’s Coach of the Year award. For the first three years of his tenure, Savarese had a wealth of talent notably led by the likes of Marcos Senna and Raul. However, aside from a ten-game stint of Niko Kranj?ar this spring, there hasn’t been a marquee name on the roster.

When FiftyFive.One addressed his success despite a smaller budget, Savarese let out a grin from ear to ear. His answer, though, was modest. ”We never look at what we don’t have,” Savarese said. “It’s about the group that we put together and for us to make sure that we accomplish things. We’ve been fortunate to have a special group, a united group, that always wants to accomplish big things. They never get tired of going forward; another year that they’ve deserved to go (into the playoffs).”

Make no mistake: his roster at the moment is the deepest in the league, and veteran attacker Juan Arango was a deserving finalist when the league announced their Golden Ball shortlist. However, as teams like Miami FC and next year’s San Francisco Deltas employ free-spending acquisition methods, the Cosmos decided not to replace the star power vacated by the retirements of Senna and Raul. It required Savarese to develop stronger depth, be flexible with his game plan, and not rely so heavily on one or two players.

The Case Study: 10/29

With the top seed in the postseason clinched, Savarese decided to rest key players like Arango, David Diosa, and Jairo Arrieta for the final match against Minnesota. Savarese explained the decision as “just a couple of guys resting, but those moments open up opportunities for players like (Eric) Calvillo, who starts the game and ends up scoring the winning goal. You want to see that in an organization. So yes, those guys stay behind, they prepare and get ready to be able to be available for next weekend.”

Calvillo isn’t the only example of lesser-used player breaking out against United. Earlier in the Fall Season, New York nipped the Loons 1-0 at home thanks to a goal-of-the-year contender from David Diosa, a player who didn’t start against United this past week. Savarese’s ability to shuffle a squad and trust players in key moments has won the respect of many in the NASL, giving him a large number of players he can rely on across a season.

Despite resting some key players in the attack and midfield (and having a defense that lost regulars like right back Hunter Freeman, defensive mid Michael Lahoud, and left back Gabriel Farfan in the middle of the summer to Miami FC), Savarese was able to guide his team to a 1-0 road win against Minnesota, despite the Loons taking 22 shots and making 34 crosses.

All told, Savarese is 55-29-19 (194) since joining NASL in June 2013. His club has advanced to the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup every year, including consecutive victories over New York City FC. Despite the loss of Raul and Senna, this year was actually his most successful full year at the club in terms of points per game.

2013: 2.21 (31 P, 14 G*); League champions
2014: 1.56 (42 P, 27 G); third in league
2015: 1.86 (56 P, 30 G); league champions
2016: 2.03 (65 P, 32 G); top seed in playoffs

*NEW YORK COSMOS JOINED NASL FOR THE FALL SEASON AFTER NOT COMPETING IN THE SPRING.

Okay, But Is He #ReadyForMLS?

This is the big question. There’s a lot that can go wrong in a club’s first year, and the track record of expansion coaches isn’t pretty. Looking at the expansion teams since 2007:

Mo johnston (TOR): 1 year
frank yallop (SJE): 5+ years
sigi schmid (SEA): 7+ years
Piotr Nowak (PHI): 2+ Years
Teitur Thordarson (VAN): 0+ Years (12 matches)
john spencer (POR): 1+ year
jesse marsch (MTL) 1 year
jason kreis (NYC): 1 year
Adrien Heath (ORL): 1+ year

With the exceptions of Yallop and Schmid (who each had managed in MLS before), no coach has finished a third year at their club. Why, then, should Minnesota consider a manger who’s only coached at the NASL level?

1. He’s shown an ability to develop talent.

This one is the most apparent from his time in New York. The Cosmos Academy was ranked as the third-best program in the United States by Soccer America at the end of 2010. On the field, players like Diosa (23; a Cosmos academian in 2010/11), Leo Fernandes (who scored 9 goals on a loan from Philadelphia Union in 2015), and Calvillo (18) have all done well under Savarese’s tutelage. In a league whose gold standard is Oscar Pareja’s FC Dallas, having a coach with experience raising youth and the ability to trust them with playing time is a tantalizing prospect.

2. He’s successfully managed talent with large personas.

The thing that sets the Cosmos apart from the rest of the NASL is a global brand, thanks to their 1970s incarnation. While a player like Raul (who was in the last year of his career) could have simply cashed his checks and lost focus, he dug in and scored a crucial goal to help push the Cosmos into the 2015 NASL Championship. Marcos Senna has become a major figure in the club’s history, which both Spaniards acting as ambassadors for the club. While Minnesota may not have the pull for a player of Raul’s magnitude, it does indicate that Minnesota could be clear of the debacle that Vancouver is facing, where Pedro Morales appears to feel too big for the club.

3. He’s shown an ability to adapt based on the opponent.

As the club enters MLS in 2017 and will face game plans ranging from the onslaught of attack in New York City to the bunker-and-boot anti-football of San Jose, it would be wise for the club to have an adaptable coach to match up weekly with these clubs. Savarese was able to keep an open game to pummel weak defensive opponents like Jacksonville, Puerto Rico, and Carolina by a combined score of 12-1 in three fall matches. Meanwhile, his teams could grit out tough games against stronger opponents like Indy, Edmonton, and Minnesota when the Cosmos’ season needed a result. His ability to trust a large number of players certainly helps, as it gives him many options to choose from over the duration of a season.

***

If Savarese is indeed Lagos and Minnesota’s top pick, don’t expect to hear any news for a couple of weeks. New York is the presumptive favorite to win the NASL Championship this year, which will be played on November 12th or 13th. However, it’s clear that the respect he has for Lagos and the organization mean there would be minimal friction from the start. With all of this in mind, the answer is clear:

If Minnesota wants to build an identity of their own and develop into a long-term powerhouse, there’s no better man for the job than Gio Savarese.

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