The New York Cosmos saw unprecedented success in their reboot, winning three North American Soccer League titles and playing in the championship match four times before the league closed shop ahead of the 2018 season.
Off the field, chaos reigned. There were ownership changes, financial woes and uncertainty of the club’s future existence.
But through it all, there was one constant — Giovanni Savarese.
“He was a pillar that held everything together,” said D.C. United technical director Dane Murphy, who played four years under Savarese at the Cosmos. “Gio was always there. He was the first one there, the last one to leave.”
Savarese has silenced doubters and reached MLS Cup in his first year coaching the Portland Timbers. But it’s not a surprise to those who worked with him so closely during his years as head coach of the Cosmos from 2013-2017.
Speak to key figures of the Cosmos reboot — a 2010 rebirth of the original Cosmos, who played from 1970-1985 — and the same words are used to describe Savarese: passionate, honest, invested, inspirational, driven, positive, prepared and loyal.
“He’s such an honest person, and he coaches that way, he manages players that way,” said Carlos Mendes, who captained the Cosmos during those years. “He has such a passion for the game and belief in his players. He gives a lot of confidence. As a player, you love playing for someone who believes in you.”
Alecko Eskandarian, a former D.C. United standout who was a Cosmos assistant coach, said Savarese “will treat the guy mopping the floor the same way as the owner, the same way as a stranger.”
“With Gio, the one thing that is always constant is him being respectful and him being polite,” Eskandarian said. “That, to me, is something that has nothing to do with soccer but goes a long way when you talk about the work that is done on the field.”
Jack Gaeta was the Cosmos’ director of team operations and one of Savarese’s closest confidants at the time. He said Savarese had an uncanny ability to read his players, get the most out of each of them and create a harmonious locker room.
“He knows the camaraderie in the locker room is most important, above all else,” Gaeta said. “You can try to bring in the most prolific scorer to his team, but if that player has a history of disrupting the locker room, there’s no chance he’s joining the team.”
Dane Murphy was an early Savarese disciple. After returning from Germany, the midfielder was playing reserve games with the New York Red Bulls when he found out about the Cosmos project.
It was 2011, and the new Cosmos were in their infancy. The team was a ragtag group, a “PDL expansion team” Murphy said.
“I went there, and the first training and Gio and Eric Cantona were the coaches,” Murphy said. “I was like, this is pretty cool.”
That team played in the Paul Scholes testimonial match at Old Trafford in Manchester on Aug. 6, 2011. After the match, won by Manchester United, 6-0, in front of an announced 76,000 fans, Murphy said they attended the afterparty, where Savarese introduced himself as the Cosmos coach to a member of security who stopped him.
“Not the best coaching job today, huh?” the guard quipped.
“Gio sort of looked at him and he didn’t get angry and said, ‘You know, strange circumstances, but I’m a pretty good coach and I think I’ll prove it to some guys some day,’” Murphy said. “I remember hearing that and laughing and then looking at him and there was a smile on his face, but he was dead serious.”
Savarese grew up a fan of Italy’s Serie A, has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and remains a student of the game, soaking up new ways of thinking and tactics.
Gaeta recalled watching a Pep Guardiola-coached Barcelona training session with Savarese in 2009 at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training complex in Spain.
“Gio broke down Guardiola’s session as if they put the training together themselves,” Gaeta said.
After, the club’s academy director gave a PowerPoint presentation, providing insight into Barcelona’s philosophy and how training sessions are run for academy players.
“Gio tried to scribble down as much of that presentation into his notebook, but the presenter was moving from screen to screen too quickly,” Gaeta said.
“Things change — except for Gio reaching yet another final.”
As for Savarese’s training sessions, they were lively and, at times, unpredictable. In the early days, Murphy said there would be three-hour sessions followed by a 90-minute scouting video prepared by Eskandarian.
“We’d be falling asleep midway through,” Murphy joked.
“I got a lot of flack for how long my scouting videos were, but that came from Gio,” said Eskandarian, who currently works in the MLS league office as senior manager for player relations and competition. “He gave me the green light to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to treat this game like a final, and the more you can learn about an opponent, the better chance you have of having success.’”
Eskandarian put in the extra work, he said, because he knew Savarese did. He’d get late-night calls from Savarese about a “corner kick from Edmonton,” and other set piece ideas.
“It inspires you to feel part of this, to feel really good about this, to contribute and do my part as well,” Eskandarian said. “I didn’t want to let him down, so it’s contagious.”
Other times, Savarese would tell players practice would be an hour, only to still be on the field for another 20-30 minutes, Mendes said.
“He’d say he was on Venezuelan time,” Mendes said laughing. “It just shows he’s so passionate and loves being out there.”
Savarese’s belief impressed Eskandarian, maybe never more so than the night of Sept. 29, 2013, when the Cosmos hosted the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a critical league tilt at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium in their first year back in the NASL.
In a must-win game, the Cosmos trailed 3-1 at halftime and Eskandarian expected Savarese’s wrath to be of biblical proportions.
“When Gio gets angry, you don’t want to be the one to face it. I remember he was so angry, but he was like, ‘I promise you we are winning this game. I guarantee we’re going to come back, score three goals and win this game,’” Eskandarian said. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, I’m on board, but … if he guarantees it and it doesn’t happen, he’s going to lose a lot of credibility.’”
Sure enough, Paulo Mendes, Diomar Diaz and Marcos Senna struck after the hour mark to cap a remarkable comeback.
“I went up to him as soon as the game was over and I said, ‘You’re a freaking prophet,’ how he wills certain things to come true,” Eskandarian said. “But it starts with his own belief.”
‘Every game is a final’
It is another famous Gio-ism. That’s because Savarese uses it during almost every news conference, from his time with the Cosmos and now with the Timbers.
But it’s not a catchphrase, according to Murphy.
“He impressed upon us every day, ‘Next game is the next game to prove to everyone why you’re the champions and that’s why it’s a final, because someone’s coming to watch you for the first time or points are going to be dropped or points are going to be won,’” Murphy said. “Every day leading up to that game mattered and then every game matters like the final.”
And when it came to actual finals, whether the NASL’s Soccer Bowl or MLS Cup, Savarese’s preparation and the training sessions leading up to them are the same as throughout the season.
“He’ll go about business the same way and [with] what’s gotten the team to that point,” Carlos Mendes said. “He’s going to have the team ready to play, but he’s going to keep them confident, calm and obviously ready for a big-game situation. In the times we went to the final, he gave us confidence and nothing had changed.”
The Cosmos first final, maybe ironically, was in Atlanta, where they were set to take on the Atlanta Silverbacks. Due to media obligations, the Cosmos had to train in Atlanta the day before the final.
“We knew if we went to the training pitch Atlanta arranged for us, there would undoubtedly be people spying on our session,” Gaeta said. “So we knew a friend who could arrange for a pitch, which was very secluded so no one could view the session. At the last minute, we canceled the original session Atlanta arranged and told no one where we were going. I didn’t even give the bus driver the address until we hit the highway.”
Now, Savarese is back in Atlanta. But this time it’s with the Timbers, the opponent is Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s celebrated Atlanta United and the venue is the majestic Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Gaeta won’t be on the sideline next to Savarese for the first time in a final and likely can’t make the match due to family obligations.
“Things change,” Gaeta said. “Except for Gio reaching yet another final.”