All over Europe, top soccer leagues featuring U.S. players are stirring back to life this week.
That growth swells to the sideline, too. On Sunday, Wisconsin-born, Princeton-educated, MLS-trained Jesse Marsch will begin his head coaching tenure with RB Leipzig, a German Bundesliga contender.
Marsch, 47, is not the only U.S.-born head coach working on Europe’s high-end circuit — Stuttgart’s Pellegrino Matarazzo, a New Jersey native, has played and coached in Europe for 21 years — but by accepting Leipzig’s top job this year, Marsch has become the most prominent.
The club finished in the top three in each of the previous three Bundesliga seasons and advanced to the UEFA Champions League semifinals in 2019-20.
“The best way to represent our [soccer] back home and the pride I have in being an American and being a big part of MLS,” Marsch said, “is just to honor what I think needs to be done and try to work as hard as I possibly can.”
He climbed the coaching ladder with Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink company that uses sports, notably soccer and auto racing, to expand its brand.
After 3½ years guiding the New York Red Bulls, Marsch was groomed for bigger things by serving one season as a Leipzig assistant. He was then in charge of RB Salzburg for back-to-back Austrian titles before becoming the natural successor to Julian Nagelsmann, who left Leipzig for Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich.
Marsch’s success in Salzburg, combined with the rise of U.S. players in Europe, has helped quell skepticism of American imports.
He said he has been well received in Leipzig, a welcome turn after facing a “Nein zu Marsch” (“No to Marsch”) banner when he arrived in Salzburg in June 2019.
“Once I had access to what goes on here in Leipzig [a few years ago], I only thought, ‘What an amazing opportunity to even dream about coaching this team,’ ” Marsch said. “The fact we’re here now and have the opportunity to live that out is really exciting. Yeah, man, we’re going to have some fun.”
Marsch began having fun in the pro ranks with D.C. United as a reserve midfielder for the first two MLS Cup champions (1996-97). In his rookie season, he was finishing his degree while earning about $10,000.
Marsch’s soccer IQ overshadowed his playing skills, said Bruce Arena, United’s first coach.
“He was one of these guys you would probably say he’d get into coaching. He was inquisitive; he had an opinion,” said Arena, who now coaches the New England Revolution. “He wasn’t a great player; he was a good player, and he knew how to play. He is a very competitive guy. He had a good feel for things on the field.”
In Washington, Marsch reunited with his Princeton coach, Bob Bradley, Arena’s chief assistant. After the 1997 campaign, Bradley became the first head coach of the Chicago Fire and, through a trade, acquired Marsch — the third of five collaborations between them.
Marsch ended up playing 14 seasons, the last four with defunct Chivas USA, where he crossed paths with Bradley in 2006.
After retiring in 2010, Marsch joined Bradley’s U.S. national team coaching staff. He parlayed that experience into coaching the expansion Montreal Impact in 2012. He lasted one year.
Marsch took a break from the sport, traveling the world with his family. Upon his return, he became a volunteer assistant at Princeton. Before the 2015 MLS season, New York made him its surprise head-coaching replacement for the popular Mike Petke.
Facing a fan revolt, the club arranged a town hall meeting. “They absolutely hated me,” Marsch remembered. “When I joined New York, I certainly wasn’t thinking about Salzburg or Leipzig.”
The mood turned quickly. In Marsch’s first season, the Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield for most regular season points, and he was named MLS coach of the year.
He won over not only the fans but the umbrella organization, which, by the summer of 2018, believed he was ready for full-time European experience. A year as a Leipzig assistant seasoned him for the Salzburg post.
“I was confident as to who I was as a coach and a leader from what the experiences were like in New York,” Marsch said. “But in coaching in a different language, in coaching in a different culture with a new group and new players and new fan base, I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous.”
It took time for the supporters to warm to him, but in both seasons, Salzburg won the league title and cup trophy. Facing long odds of advancing out of Champions League group play, the club finished a respectable third each year.
Marsch’s embrace of a new language and culture helped ease the transition, said former Polish midfielder Peter Nowak, Marsch’s roommate with the Fire. “If you don’t have that direct communication with the players,” Nowak said, “it’s not going to work.”
A halftime speech Marsch made during a 2019 Champions League match at Liverpool went viral because he mixed German and English but also exhibited passion.
“It’s gotten to where I can at least confidently say I can hold conversations very close to fluency,” Marsch said during a news conference last month.
A Leipzig official smiled and interjected in English, “His German is really good.”
Marsch said learning German has been “a big part of me growing as a person.
“Showing the people I work with that I care about who they are, what they are about, what the culture is about,” he said.
Nowak sees his old friend blending two cultures into his coaching style.
“It’s not just the German way; it’s the American way,” Nowak said. “The German discipline combined with the American way of having fun and expressing yourself. It could be a very good recipe for success.”
Proving himself in one of Europe’s top-five leagues and advancing in the Champions League are bigger tasks than he faced in Austria, though.
“I know from being here as an assistant how talented the group is,” Marsch said. “I also know the quality of men we have. Working with them as players is just a joy. It’s really exciting to see what the possibilities are.”
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