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On Soccer: Coach with ties to Italy hopes for that time when MLS games can resume, but coronavirus 'changes all of us'

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Portland Timbers and coach Giovanni Savarese are waiting to see when MLS play can resume.Giovanni Savarese talked Friday about how much he misses coaching his team.

But the Portland Timbers coach made clear he is focused on keeping his family, and his soccer family, safe during the COVID-19 pandemic that has halted all training sessions for MLS teams.

Savarese's perspective is colored by family connections in Italy, which in recent weeks has been hit hard by the virus. So, while the coach discussed strategies for keeping his players in shape and ready for soccer, his comments about cousins stood out during a 30-minute conference call with reporters.

"It's been difficult, especially in Italy, for the family," Savarese said. "In Venezuela, I have connected with my mother, my brother, uncles, family, and they are following the guidelines (to stay healthy).

"In Italy, it has been more difficult. I have family members that are police that have to be in the streets of Bologna, where it's very complicated."

He said those cousins are afraid to go into the streets, and of seeing the large number of dead.

"It's incredible," Savarese said. "The situation in the hospitals. It is very worrisome. We connect every day.

I have another cousin that is home as well because (they are) afraid of a neighbor that contracted the virus."

Scary stuff. Which is why leagues such as MLS continue to adjust expectations. On Friday, MLS extended until March 27 the moratorium prohibiting teams from gathering for training sessions. Players cannot access team training facilities, except for physical therapy overseen by club medical staff.

During this period of separation, the Timbers have taken steps to make sure their players remain fit and healthy.

Those steps include daily phone calls. Each member of the coaching staff is assigned a group of players to check in on daily to monitor players needs.

The club delivered stationary bikes to the homes of players who do not have access to such equipment at home. The strength and conditioning coaches developed and are monitoring specific workout plans.

"We are trying to make sure that the players don't lose the work that we did during preseason," Savarese said.

As of midday Friday, no member of the team was ill and none has been tested for COVID-19. Noting the shortage of available tests, Savarese emphasized that the team will not test players unless it is deemed medically necessary.

All MLS players remain in their team's home market.

With the number of foreign players in the league and on the Timbers, Savarese noted that it would be difficult to monitor the health and welfare of each player who returned to their native countries during this crisis.

As the coaches, trainers and club medical personnel interact with players, technology is part of the story. The team is using Kitman Labs Athlete App to monitor and interact with players.

Savarese said the players will soon receive video clips to demonstrate areas where they can improve. That is one way the coaches are working to keep players mentally healthy and engaged.

Savarese and his coaching staff have conference calls daily and are using this time to evaluate many aspects of the team, including how some players might fit in different positions.

Savarese praised the way MLS is communicating with its clubs at every level, including daily meetings among owners. He said training and coaching staffs are sharing ideas for how to best handle a situation that changes rapidly.

Savarese has reached beyond MLS for input.

"I've spoken with people who manage teams in Italy and other parts of the world. It's very complicated what they have gone through," Savarese said, adding that he is "getting conversations going with many people just to see how we can best confront this situation and be ready, knowing that in an hour something might change. These are the times we are living in right now."

Savarese is eager to get back to the business of soccer. But he knows things aren't likely to be the same, even when the games resume.

"When the time comes, we have to do a lot of reflection and understand what we went through," he said. "We cannot move forward if we don't understand how difficult this time has been for many people."

He believes soccer, and sport, will continue to play a big role in the community and in the lives of passionate fans, once the crisis ends. Perhaps, he said, there will be even more passion from fans at Providence Park.

"I definitely can't wait for that moment to come and to have everybody back in the stadium watching games, and that the world will be back to normal," Savarese said.

Normal, though, might be very different the next time the Timbers take the field.

"I don't think it will be ever the same," Savarese said. "Going through a moment like this, it changes all of us."

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