Portland Timbers Attempt To Save The 2023 MLS Season By Firing Giovanni Savarese – Will It Work?

The Portland Timbers fired manager Giovanni Savarese this week, ending a six-season relationship. The manager’s dismissal left many Portland Timbers fans questioning why it had taken the club this long to sack the Venezuelan.  

The Timbers’ 11W-13D-10L record and missing the MLS Cup playoffs in 2022 was enough for many long-time Timbers supporters to call for Savarese’s firing. Yet, the club, grateful for the manager’s work, must have felt he could turn around the team this season.  

Portland backed Savarese in the winter transfer window, signing some promising attacking players before the start of the MLS 2023 campaign. Evander joined from Denmark’s FC Midtjylland, Franck Boli from Hungary’s Ferencvaros, and Juan David Mosquera from Independiente Medellin. While the trio cannot be criticized too heavily for their play, Portland hasn’t progressed as hoped.  

The final straw for Portland management came on Sunday, August 20, when the Timbers were humiliated by Western Conference rivals, the Houston Dynamo, 5-0. Houston led the match 4-0 by halftime, and it wasn’t long after the break that the Texas club put a fifth goal past hapless Timbers’ goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic.  

By Tuesday, Savarese left the job, and assistant coach Miles Joseph was installed as interim manager. Joseph is a blast from MLS’s past. He played in MLS from Jump Street, joining the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1996. 

Portland had a record of 6W-8D-10L in 24 fixtures this season before Savarese’s firing. The team scored just 26 times and conceded 38 goals. With the team ebbing toward a second straight season without playoff soccer, the decision was made to move on from Savarese.  

The firing of Savarese is another personnel decision in a seemingly revolving door of changes at Portland Timbers. Ned Grabavoy assumed the general manager role in October 2022, taking over for Gavin Wilkinson. Heather Davis was appointed CEO after Merritt Paulson stepped down last fall.  

Savarese compiled a record of 93W-50D-73L in all competitions during his time as Portland manager, according to Transfermarkt. It should be noted that this figure is different than the one officially released by the Portland Timbers communications department, which stated Savarese had a record of 74W-47D-62L. The Timbers’ figure likely omits some non-MLS league and playoff fixtures.  

Portland obtained 1.52 points per match in 216 games under Savarese’s management. He averaged more than half the points for each game, demonstrating MLS’s parity. Portland was neither completely awful nor completely amazing during Savarese’s tenure.  

Twice, Savarese led Portland to the MLS Cup final. The club lost both finals, falling to Atlanta United 2-0 in 2018 and losing on penalties to New York City FC in 2021.  

Despite making two MLS Cup finals, Portland’s best Western Conference regular season finish was only third place in 2020, a COVID-19-shortened season. That campaign also saw Portland win the MLS is Back tournament. In no way should this be seen as a success by Savarese. 

In the wake of his firing, the sports news media added the MLS is Back accolade to the manager’s list of honors. While it was a trophy, it was won in a haphazardly put-together tournament during a worldwide pandemic. Some teams struggled to put players on the pitch for the tournament’s games. It was the equivalent of winning a preseason competition.

The Timbers may have saved their season by sacking Savarese, with ten matches left to play in 2023. Parity rules in MLS, meaning the Timbers are not out of the running for the final Western Conference MLS Cup playoff place despite being appalling on the pitch. 

Portland took 26 points from their opening 24 matches and sit a mere five points off the final playoff place. Yes, Portland has a 6W-8D-10L record going into the final ten matches of the season, and the team can still make the MLS Cup playoffs. 

MLS’s decision to add two playoff places for 2023 not only ensured 62% of teams get into the postseason but it renders much of the regular season pointless.  

Ten Western Conference teams have nine or fewer wins this season. With all those teams playing at least 22 matches, it shows the role parity plays in MLS. If Portland could win half of their remaining matches, which is a difficult task, having won just six times so far, it would give them a shot at making the postseason.  

Portland Timbers fans may be happy to see the club go in a different direction, but Savarese won’t likely need to wait long before his next job offer in MLS. Two MLS Cup finals and a points-per-match average of 1.52 will catch the eyes of teams around the league. Sure, Portland may not have been the most attractive team in the league despite having plenty of strong offensive players. Yet, clubs wanting stability and nearly regular playoff appearances will want to hire him.

Savarese had previously led the New York Cosmos to three NASL championships before being hired to lead the Timbers. The NASL folded in 2017, shortly after Savarese took the Cosmos to that season’s Soccer Bowl Championship Game and lost 2-0 to the San Francisco Deltas. Short life spans and fast times are the hallmarks of lower-league American soccer.  

There is an old saying: “Hope for farts but expect crap.” That is precisely what the Portland Timbers are doing for the remaining ten matches of the MLS season. Portland is hoping for Joseph to turn things around to at least get the team into the playoffs.

Sacking Savarese now gives general manager Grabavoy time to sound out potential managerial candidates. Portland is a soccer hotbed with a rabid fanbase. There won’t be any shortage of head coaches that want the job. 

Since being founded in 2009 (for MLS), Portland has only had two general managers. Wilkinson occupied the role until leaving nearly a year ago. Grabavoy will be able to imprint his imprint on the Timbers by hiring a new head coach.  

The former Portland midfielder can align his work with the new coach to create a vision full of synergies to move the needle for the future. Of course, visions, synergies, and moving the needle are all great buzzwords to use. 

But in the end, the only thing that will matter is the results on the pitch. Portland cut ties with Savarese in hopes of saving the season. Now, the players need to respond. If they don’t, it will be another cold fall in the City of Roses without the MLS Cup playoffs.