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Head coach Gio Savarese talks shop with the league’s reigning MVP, midfielder Diego Valeri.

Major League Soccer, 1996: a new league practicing a sport that inspired apathy in most Americans and, in a few who just happened to run sports media, a xenophobic rage. Foreigners! They fall down a lot! There were 10 teams, some placed on the map via a tail-on-the-donkey method (Columbus, Ohio?) and others branded by some demented marketing intern: the “Kansas City Wiz” and “Dallas Burn.” The thing was born sounding like a defunct ’70s roller derby circuit.

But Giovanni Savarese didn’t know MLS was supposed to be lame, foreign, or awkward. A 24-year-old from another nonsoccer nation (baseball-loving Venezuela), Savarese had plumbed American soccer’s most obscure minor league realms with teams called Greek American Atlas and the Long Island Rough Riders. For him, “the New York/New Jersey MetroStars” represented an All-American shot in the majors.

This spring, Savarese, now 46 years old, takes over as manager of the Portland Timbers. Coming off a winning coaching stint with the lower-division New York Cosmos—a team with an actual storied past—he remembers the league’s early days.

“Our first game, we played the Galaxy in LA,” Savarese says. “And we read in the newspaper the day before that they expected 20,000 people, and we’re thinking, that’s pretty good. We get to the stadium, and we see more and more people—the crowd is really filling up. We have close to 70,000 people there. It’s fantastic. But, well, we lose 2–1. And the next practice, five guys from the starting lineup have just been cut. They’re just gone—where are these guys?”

Savarese overcame the chaos to emerge as MLS’s first hot goal scorer. He notched the league’s first hat-trick; he scored twice to lead a rally from three goals down; he one-timed a 25-yard missile into the net, then celebrated with fans, flaunting his ’90s-floppy rust-red jersey. MetroStars pride!

Today, with 23 teams and multi-million dollar salary caps, MLS is something like successful. (The MetroStars are now called the New York Red Bulls.) “Fans now know the game,” says the personable head coach, the psychic opposite of his stone-faced predecessor, Caleb Porter. “Back then, they would only cheer for the goals, and that’s it. Now the fans understand how the game works: when they need to get a little louder, when something good happens that’s not a goal but it’s important.”

The Timbers begin their season on March 4 against the Los Angeles Galaxy—Savarese’s first MLS foe—and play their first five games away, meaning fans will have to assess his coaching debut at a distance. Providence Park, always sold-out, will be shut until April for the first phase of a major expansion—one of many new realities of soccer in America. As Savarese notes, back in 1996 the new clubs played in huge American football stadiums; the inevitable empty bleachers spoke volumes about America’s bafflement with the upstart league.

“Now you have almost 90 percent of the clubs in stadiums designed for soccer, and it creates a much better atmosphere.”

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