DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — Jesse Marsch came to Europe to make a name both for himself and for every other American soccer coach.
He managed that in a big way.
Marsch led Salzburg to this season’s Austrian league title, the most significant trophy won by an American coach in Europe.
“My main emphasis in coming to Europe — of course, ambition was a part of it — but it was more to see if my idea of leadership could thrive in this competitive setting of our sport,” the Wisconsin native told The Associated Press. “And, you know, I mean, it’s very sink or swim in Europe.”
In his first season as coach of Salzburg, Marsch had little trouble staying afloat despite a raft of problems. He had to contend with both the coronavirus shutdown and a mid-season rebuild after the club sold Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund and Takumi Minamino to Liverpool.
Marsch also became the first American to coach a team in the group stage of the Champions League, and he drew plenty of praise for his team’s all-action style in European soccer’s biggest club competition.
Against Liverpool in October, Salzburg bounced back from a 3-0 hole in a battling 4-3 loss at Anfield. Footage of his halftime talk was widely shared on social media. In a mix of German and English, laced with expletives, he urged the players not to show Liverpool too much respect.
“In some ways, Liverpool was the worst possible draw we could have, not just because of their quality, but because they play similarly to us,” said Marsch, who made two appearances with the U.S. national team as a midfielder in the 2000s.
“We could surprise them maybe by the quality that we had, but not really surprise them by the way we play or the speed at which we play or the intensity at which we play, because they do the same, but probably better. But at the same time, it was an incredible strategic challenge to to match up against such a great team.”
Salzburg’s game is built around high-intensity pressing, just like Liverpool. And the results are rarely dull — since June 7, Salzburg has won games 6-0, 5-1, 7-2 and 5-2.
Quite the statement, especially coming after an 11-week break in which Salzburg’s players had to stay match-ready with a mix of home fitness exercises and socially distanced training sessions.
Marsch also took a keen interest in his players’ personal lives and mental well-being.
“I made a lot of phone calls. They were more just about seeing how guys are doing, making sure their families were safe, making sure they were doing O.K. and cooking and everything that they had to do,” he said. “And I think it actually brought the group together and made us stronger.”
The virus also cost league rival LASK Linz some points — the leaders at the time of the suspension were deducted points for holding training sessions in violation of league rules.
But Salzburg’s nine-game unbeaten run since the restart negated any advantage that would have given them.
“Our plan was to win the league as if LASK had the points,” Marsch said. “So we wanted to be emphatic.”
Other American coaches have led bigger teams, including Bob Bradley at English club Swansea and naturalized citizen Jürgen Klinsmann at Hertha Berlin. Neither won a title. American coach Pellegrino Matarazzo, however, led Stuttgart to promotion in Germany this season.
Marsch is a strong believer in nurturing leadership from within his squad, even with a young team. Salzburg relies on developing up-and-coming talent to make Marsch’s tactics work, and to fund the club with player sales.
“To play our kind of football we need young players. We need players that are fast and powerful and can play game in and game out,” he said. “We actually need young players here to subsidize our financial situation and to play our football.”
With backing from energy drink company Red Bull, Salzburg is a financial giant in the Austrian league, where it had already won six straight titles before Marsch took over for the 2019-20 season.
In the Champions League, it’s an underdog. That means preparing drastically different tactics.
“It’s crazy, right? It’s like the levels are so different and the demands are so different that sometimes it feels like it’s almost preparing two different kinds of settings or sports,” Marsch said.
Red Bull’s network of clubs around the world has developed young players like Haaland and Timo Werner, but it’s also developed Marsch as a coach. When he joined the New York Red Bulls in MLS in 2015, his only head coaching experience was a one-year stint at the Montreal Impact three years before.
Marsch spent three years in New York, leaving with the most wins of any coach in franchise history, to take an assistant coach role at Red Bull’s German club, Leipzig. A year later, he took over at Salzburg.
After winning the Austrian title, Marsch says he wants to stay “in the moment,” rather than making longer-term plans. Another European campaign starts in the fall, after all.
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