Firing Giovanni Savarese A Needed Move For The Portland Timbers, But Will It Help?

CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 07: Giovanni Savarese manager of the Portland Timbers during a game between Portland Timbers and Los Angeles Galaxy at Dignity Heath Sports Park on October 07, 2020 in Carson, California.

In parting ways with coach Giovanni Savarese Monday evening, the Portland Timbers made a move that might have simultaneously been too late and too early. 

Since coming to Portland in 2017, Savarese has been a demonstrative figure on the Timbers sidelines, celebrating enthusiastically with every success but also struggling for answers with every failure.

He led the Timbers to a pair of unexpected MLS Cup appearances, an MLS is Back tournament title in 2020, and numerous dramatic wins over archrival Seattle Sounders, but he also presided over a team that never seemed to find its identity under his command and also suffered innumerable embarrassments on the field and off during his tenure. 

The final embarrassment came at the hands of Houston Dynamo Sunday when the Timbers, well rested from a Leagues Cup appearance that left hope that they were maybe turning the corner on their season, instead looked like a fourth division team taking on an overpowering rival as they surrendered three goals in the opening 15 minutes on their way to a 5-0 drubbing.

The Timbers appeared utterly uninterested in even showing up to play and didn’t have the faintest interest in communicating on offense or defense. If Savarese had endeavored to make them a better team during their layoff from MLS play, it didn’t work. While Savarese had dodged the axe before and pulled late-season miracles out of his hat, there would be no avoiding the firing line this time.

It was a stunningly quick decision to pull the ripcord from a team that had so far shown him seemingly endless patience. Things must have been rapidly deteriorating behind the scenes if the team was willing to move on so abruptly. Perhaps there was a realization that no second-half miracle was coming, and the coach had finally exhausted whatever magic he had. He looked doomed two years ago when the Timbers were embarrassed 6-2 by the Sounders on August 15, 2021, only to win 10 of their final 15 matches and make it to the MLS Cup. However, he could not recapture that motivational energy last season or this year. Last year, he had the team in playoff position, only for them to crash out of the playoff picture on the final day of the season amidst a season played under the shadow of Paulson’s and Wilkinson’s scandals. Despite getting to stay on to bring the team some much-needed stability, it looked like he would not make it out of April when the team started 1-4-2, only to respond by beating the Sounders 4-2 in mid-April. Then the team went into yet another slump, and it appeared he might not make it to the League Cup break, but again, they found a blip of life with a 3-2 win over Columbus last month. However, being unable to carry over the momentum from that game or a decent showing in the League Cup group stage in the embarrassing loss to Houston appears to have been the final straw. 

It was clear Savarese had lost the locker room some time ago, but it’s not clear what difference a new voice will make in what is rapidly turning into a lost season. Interim Head Coach Miles Joseph will have ten games to see if he can get Evander and the offense to play up to their potential finally, have…well, anyone…on defense look interested in playing their position, and see what he can otherwise salvage from what is dangerously close to becoming a lost season. 

Perhaps the team needs a new voice to figure out their identity and develop some consistency. Maybe there are deeper issues in play that go deeper than a head coach, and things will only spiral further as the season stumbles to a close. 

Savarese certainly did his best over the past seven and half seasons in charge. He was handed an aging roster, had to navigate the turbulence of the COVID pandemic, then dealt with the fallout of abuse scandals by owner Merritt Paulson and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, then had a roster in a constant state of flux that he was never able to figure out how to get to work together cohesively. 

While Savarese is finally out, the challenges are only beginning for the Timbers. The team needs to decide if the new players it has brought in over the past two seasons are the team’s future or if they need to burn things to the ground and start from scratch. If they decide not to go into a full rebuild, they’ll need to find someone who is a voice the roster will listen to and engage with. Notably, this will be the first time the Timbers are searching for a head coach with Wilkinson at the helm. Even though their long-time general manager may be gone, a coaching search this offseason will bring many of the same questions that would have been raised had the team moved on from Savarese last offseason. What’s the team’s plan going forward on the field? What about off it? Paulson has been mainly in the background since the abuse cover-up scandal embroiled both him and Wilkinson. Does he intend to sell the team, or is he still hoping to ride things out? As long as the roster and ownership situations remain unsettled, it’s doubtful that the Timbers will be able to attract top-tier coaching talent. 

For all of his faults, Savarese was a coach who could capture the energy of Providence Park and seemed to feed off it. While he may not always have been able to direct that energy into his players, his enthusiasm was evident. With the excitement around the team at quite possibly its lowest ebb since entering MLS, the Timbers will need to find someone who can bring their own energy and vitality to recharge the team’s fortunes going forward. 

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About Ben McCarty 89 Articles
Ben McCarty is a freelance writer and digital media producer who lives in Vancouver. He can usually be found in his backyard with his family, throwing the ball for his dog, or telling incredibly long, convoluted bedtime stories. He enjoys Star Wars, rambling about sports, and whipping up batches of homemade barbeque sauce.