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MLS Cup Final preview: Timbers prepared to strike

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Things are going to get real loud in Georgia by the time 8 p.m. ET rolls around on Saturday night.

That’s when Atlanta United tangles with Portland Timbers, the Georgian outfit a heavy favorite to win its first MLS Cup and send Tata Martino, Miguel Almiron, and probably a few others away from United as all-time heroes (though they already qualify given their star power and the new nature of the club).

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Standing in their way? One of the most storied clubs in modern American soccer, guided by a first-time MLS manager whose outfoxed plenty of coaches in his day. Giovanni Savarese may not carry the name accolades of Martino’s but the job he’s done in Portland has surprised many and he deserves to have a shot of winning MLS Cup.

And lest we forget that Martino has been out-foxed in finals before: The 2013 Copa del Rey final and three Copa America finals, with the Spanish Super Cup for Barcelona against Atletico Madrid standing as his big final victory. The Copa America finals were Argentina twice losing to Chile in PKs, and with Paraguay blown out by highly-favored Uruguay; The Copa del Rey was Barca’s late loss to Real Madrid in Valencia.

Savarese has won three NASL titles with the New York Cosmos, who were admittedly the favorites each time. And his Timbers have won an MLS Cup away from home, claiming the 2015 final against Columbus with several players still in green and white on the roster (Diego Valeri, Jorge Villafana, Diego Chara, Lucas Melano, Jake Gleeson).

So, yes, Atlanta is the favorite to win, but don’t sleep on Portland in a one-off game with plenty of rest and time to prepare for a tactical challenge.


Regular season

Portland – 15W-10L-9T – +6 GD – 4W-8L-5T away

Atlanta – 21W-7L-6T – +26 GD – 11W-2L-4T home


Head-to-head

June 24 — D 1-1 in Atlanta — Goals: Mabiala (32′), Gressel (56′)


Playoffs

Atlanta
Beat NYCFC 4-1 (1-0, 3-1)
Beat RBNY 3-1 (3-0, 0-1)

Portland
Beat Dallas 2-1
Beat Seattle 4-4 (2-1, 2-3)
Beat Sporting KC 3-2 (0-0, 3-2)


Timbers extend unbeaten streak with 3-0 win over Union

Sean Meagher /The Oregonian via AP
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Diego Valeri and Dairon Asprilla each scored on a penalty kick, and the Portland Timbers extended their unbeaten streak to 15 games with a 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night.

Portland improved to 10-0-5 since its last loss on April 8 at Orlando. The undefeated run matches the club’s MLS record of 15 games set in 2013.

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Philadelphia rested many of its starters – including captain Alejandro Bedoya – in anticipation of Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal.

David Guzman also scored for the Timbers on a header in the 87th minute.

Valeri’s penalty came after Philadelphia’s Fabinho pulled down Alvas Powell in the 58th minute. Warren Creavalle tripped Valeri in the box for Asprilla’s PK in the 84th minute.

It was Portland’s first match without Fanendo Adi, who signed with FC Cincinnati this week. Adi, who had been with the Timbers since 2014, scored a late goal that gave Portland a 2-1 victory over Houston last weekend.

FC Cincinnati, currently with the lower-tier USL, will join Major League Soccer as an expansion team next season.

The Timbers were without Sebastian Blanco because of yellow card accumulation. Samuel Armenteros, who was listed as questionable with a sore back, started for Portland.

Bedoya was listed as a sub for the match but entered in the 66th minute after Valeri’s goal.

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Philadelphia hosts the Chicago Fire in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. Other regular starters who were subs for the game included Hari Mendunjanin, Raymon Gaddis and David Accam. Coach Jim Curtain started forward C.J. Sapong and defender Keegan Rosenberry.

The match was scoreless after the first half. Portland’s best chance appeared to be a shot by Andy Polo that sailed just over the goal in the 34th minute. Just before that, Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella lunged to grab Sapong’s left-footed shot toward the far post.

Sapong had another opportunity in the opening minute of the second half but Attinella came away with another save.

Timbers make it official: Savarese is the new boss

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The Portland Timbers have made it official, announcing the hiring of New York Cosmos architect Giovanni Savarese as the successor to Caleb Porter.

Savarese, 46, led the Cosmos to three NASL Championship Games in his first run as a manager, following a playing career that included stops at Millwall, NY/NJ MetroStars, and Swansea City. He attended Long Island University, and was capped 30 times with 10 goals for Venezuela.

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He’s an intriguing hire for Portland, who won an MLS Cup but suffered from inconsistency under the highly-regarded Porter (twice missing the playoffs but twice earning the West’s No. 1 seed). While the Cosmos regularly spent well, Savarese navigated the uncertain waters of a nascent league with regular success.

From Timbers.com:

“I am both excited and proud to become the head coach of the Portland Timbers, and this is an ideal fit and outstanding opportunity for me as I take the next step in my coaching career,” Savarese said. “The passion, ambition and support surrounding this club is truly inspiring, and I am sincerely honored and grateful for this opportunity to lead it on the pitch and to build on the club’s history of success for the community and the incredible supporters of the Portland Timbers.”

The hiring has been rumored for some time. Though Savarese was loyal to the Cosmos, the NASL’s future has been hung in the hands of the legal system for some time due to a bold lawsuit against U.S. Soccer Federation. The NASL contends that the relationships between the USSF, Soccer United Marketing, United Soccer League, and Major League Soccer have conspired to stop the NASL from competing with MLS as a D-1 league.

Report: Cosmos coach Savarese to be named new Timbers manager

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In a time where NASL’s status moving forward is hanging in the balance, one of the league’s top managers is set to make the jump to Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: LA FC close to acquiring Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan ]

According to ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman, New York Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese is set to be named the next Portland Timbers manager.

Savarese will take over for the recently departed Caleb Porter, who stepped down from his head coaching role with the Timbers in November.

The former professional player spent five seasons in MLS during his career, including stints with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the Red Bulls), as well as the New England Revolution and the San Jose Earthquakes.

The 46-year-old has managed the Cosmos from 2013 to present, and guided the NASL side to three Soccer Bowl titles in that span.

Why Rocco Commisso saved the New York Cosmos

Mediacom Communications Corporation
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Rocco Commisso went from interested observer to owner of the New York Cosmos and savior of the North American Soccer League in a little over 24 hours.

And though it came together quickly, it also took a lifetime.

An Italian immigrant and cable television magnate, Commisso’s name may have come out of nowhere to Cosmos fans but in a sense his move into American soccer power is the logical next step in a lifelong relationship with soccer that began on the beaches of southern Italy, was nurtured on the field at Columbia University, and grew with his love for The Old Lady.

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Let’s take a step back, though, and recall the status of the Cosmos in late December 2016. Reigning champions of the NASL, financial troubles had the Cosmos releasing players from their contracts and putting their front office on furlough. The team looked set for at least a one year absence from the playing field, and there was a lot of smoke and certainly some fire regarding the potential demise of the NASL for a second time. It seemed probable the only silver lining was that the Cosmos would go out as champions.

twitter.com/NYCosmos
twitter.com/NYCosmos

Members of the Cosmos staff approached Commisso, 67, who was no stranger to ownership opportunities both here and abroad. Perhaps the closest he came was in 2011, when the DeBenedetto/Pallotta Group spoke with him about helping with their takeover of AS Roma. Commisso eventually declined, he says, because his Juventus fandom wouldn’t allow him to trade clubs.

The rare opportunity to save both a storied name and a growing league was too much to pass up, however.

And the sport had given him so much that he felt he owed it a debt. His Bronx high school did not field a soccer team in the 1960s, and Commisso needed help from his gym teacher to get interest from colleges, eventually winning a four-year scholarship to Columbia University. He became a three-time All-Ivy League player, and was invited to tryout for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team.

Commisso also helped the Lions to the 1970 NCAA Tournament, scoring in a win over Buffalo State and future NBA star Randy Smith — “The highlight of my soccer life” — before using his degree to forge a wildly successful financial and media career.

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“I tell everyone my experience on the soccer field at Columbia is the one that I remember the most and which I cherish the most,” said Commisso.

“The friendships and the things that I got back from the game of soccer were a stepping stone to all I’ve done since. It was soccer that opened the door to a great institution like Columbia and now it’s my job to give back to the game.”

The game remained a big part of his life. He started an over-30 league in Westchester County,was a youth coach for 15 years and has been involved with the Columbia soccer program for almost 50 years, both as a player and alumni supporter. The university’s soccer stadium was named after him, and he was never ignorant of the fortunes of Juventus back home in Italy.

So it didn’t come as a massive surprise to those who knew him well that the Cosmos idea would intrigue him. Approached by Cosmos staffers named Joe Barone and Jack Gaeta, who also played at Columbia, Commisso was sold on the project if the NASL maintained its Division 2 status and the Cosmos could hit the pitch this season.

“There were competing bids where people wanted to shut it down and shut up the name, or buy the intellectual property rights and try to sell it to somebody else,” Commisso said. “But in neither scenario was the team going to be around in 2017. I felt an obligation to help out, and my first condition when I entered the room was I’m only here to talk about the team playing a full season in 2017.”

The NASL was granted provisional D-2 status, and Commisso sealed the deal. Years after his first offers to own a team, he was doing it his adopted hometown of New York City.

New York Cosmos player Lucky Mkosana (R) greets teammate Spanish Raul Gonzalez (L) during a Cuba vs New York Cosmos friendly soccer match on June 2, 2015 at Pedro Marrero stadium in Havana. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE

There wasn’t much time to celebrate, but surely there’s been plenty to smile about. Right, Rocco?

“My smiles or my tears?” Commisso said. “This is not a typical business, like the cable business. The next day was the realization that we had to put the team together. The front office needed to be rehired. There were some emergencies that we had to deal with right at the outset. Making sure that Giovanni (Savarese) was staying around and convincing the existing players, there were only a few, that there was a club.”

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And there was that whole question of where to play. The Cosmos of the first NASL had played at Yankee Stadium and Giants Stadium, while the second spent last season at Hofstra University on Long Island. Commisso wanted back in the City, though that had proven a major obstacle for soccer teams in the Empire State.

Somehow, they found a home: MCU Park in Brooklyn, home of New York-Penn League baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the New York Mets.

“Just think about it,” Commisso said. “New York City FC still doesn’t have a soccer-specific stadium after four years.We finalized a stadium lease and game schedules in less than a month. A great location in the Five Boroughs in a short period of time. Typically these things take years. We managed to strike a deal to bring the Cosmos back to New York City where it all began in 1971. Now we’ve gotta try to install a soccer field on top of the baseball field.

“The next major job is how to go out and fill up the stadium with fans. We went out and the appetite is very high. In the media and Twitter, so far I must say 99 percent of the comments are very positive by everyone, and especially the loyal Cosmos fans. Lots of work. We’re working day and night. Even though we don’t have the luxury of a five-month window before the start of the season, we will be ready by April 1. Gio has 16 or 17 players already signed up, so we’re almost finished filling up the team roster. We’re not there yet, but we are well on our way proceeding with Spring Training the next couple weeks.”

Commisso is careful not to guarantee much regarding his maiden voyage through the NASL. For one thing, he says, American soccer provides less opportunities for upward mobility than the rest of the world. For another, business has taught him to work harder than he speaks.

“I’ve been known my entire career for never, never making promises that I can’t deliver on,” Commisso said. “I’d rather under promise and over deliver than the other way around. As you know, plenty of people came to this country including the prior ownership of the Cosmos, where they were going to revolutionize the whole game, the whole system, and look what happened. Unfortunately, the road to establishing sustainable professional soccer in the U.S. has been littered with financial failures.”

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“The simple problem is that I don’t control my destiny. You’ve got the NASL, the USSF, MLS, the USL, the stadium issue, the money… at least on the money side I’ll be okay. I’m not gonna run out of money tomorrow, but in terms of where I want to see the Cosmos, I don’t know what the future will hold, other than doing the job a day at a time.”

That’s fine. After all, here’s one of many tremendous immigrant stories, a man who built from nothing the fifth largest cable television company in America which is wholly-owned by him and his family, and who fashioned an accolade-heavy college career without having played organized soccer before college.

“I started playing with a soccer ball that was a bunch of rags tied up with rubber bands, some underwear, too,” Commisso said of his early playing days in Italy.

“I lived in a beach town in Calabria where in the summer we played on sand and in winter in the streets. It was never organized, was always pick-up games. You showed up and the big boys decided if they needed you. Because I was the only kid crazy enough to dive on concrete, they always chose me as goalie. That was the nature of my training, not like the kids today where their playing time is organized by the parents.”

And of course, there was Juventus. Commisso was a young fan for a terrific spell that saw The Old Lady win three titles in four seasons with Welsh star John Charles, fiery Argentine forward Omar Sivori, and Giampiero Boniperti(an attack trio that in some ways calls to mind Barcelona’s current trident).

TURIN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11: (L-R) Mirko Vucinic, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus FC celebrate their victory after the Serie A match between Juventus FC v Parma FC at Juventus Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Del Piero and Buffon in 2011 (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

But what stands out to Commisso is what happened after Juventus was relegated following the Calciopoli scandal a little over a decade ago.

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“I knew I would be one of those people who stayed with the team when things got bad,” he said. “In 2006, Buffon and Del Piero, world-class icons of international soccer, they went down with the team into the Second Division. And within one year, we came back up and now we have won five-straight Seria A championships.”

Perhaps there’s a bright ray of hope in there for Cosmos fans. No, they aren’t far removed from winning a title, but they are only weeks removed from thinking their club was lost. Now it’s off to Brooklyn, and there are many reasons to schedule a visit to MCU Park in Coney Island.