MLS To UCL: Marsch Treads A Unique Path
You could forgive Jesse Marsch for soaking in the moment as he prepared to manage his first UEFA Champions League game with Red Bull Salzburg.
For Marsch, it was the culmination of years work, which included trips between New York and Scotland to undertake his UEFA coaching badges through the Scottish FA.
The ensuing result — a dominant 6-2 victory over Genk — allowed for Erling Braut Haaland to steal the headlines. The Norwegian’s first-half hat-trick went down in history and was the perfect start for Marsch. The 45-year-old from Racine, Wisconsin, began his management career in MLS with the Montreal Impact, but he would last just a season in Canada.
It was instead his spell with the New York Red Bulls that set him on a path to Salzburg, via Leipzig.
His start in New York was eventful. It began with a town hall-style meeting in which the club was forced to justify dismissing then-popular head coach Mike Petke in favour of Marsch. “Answer the question,” bellowed one fan at sporting director Ali Curtis.
“They’ve been through a lot, the supporters,” Marsch said in an interview. “They’ve stuck with the club, and I think they were at a point where they had enough, rightfully so in many ways.”
That honesty won him time, but admiration came when his team took to the field. At the heart of the club’s identity under Marsch was a style that was fast, aggressive, and often suffocated opponents. After enduring a somewhat indifferent start to the campaign, the team kicked into high-gear around the midway point of the season.
Between June 24 and the final game of the season, they lost just five of their 20 league games.
As well as an impressive league record that took the team to the Supporters’ Shield (a trophy awarded to the team with the best regular-season record) Marsch also sought to give more opportunities to the club’s homegrown players.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of that approach was Tyler Adams. The midfielder was transferred to RB Leipzig in January after a standout year in MLS. By that point, Marsch had already spent close to six months as the club’s assistant manager.
Like Adams, Marsch’s work in New York had convinced those in charge he had a future in Europe.
If his introduction in New York was frosty, the same is true in Salzburg. News broke earlier in the year that Marsch would replace the outgoing Marco Rose. In response, some fans released a banner that read ‘Nein zu Marsch! — No to Marsch!
Just like in 2015 Marsch appreciated the importance of a first impression, and chose to speak German during his introductory press conference.
“If I am going to challenge people to grow, and challenge people to commit to it all the way and challenge people to think about what it means to be a part of this, then I have to also think carefully about that, as well, and commit to it all the way,” Marsch told The Athletic this week. “And when I show my vulnerability and when I show I’m not perfect and when I show I make mistakes, whether it’s through language or culture or coaching or whatever, they understand we don’t have to be perfect. Part of growing is understanding that you should make mistakes.”
While Marsch may not be perfect, his team’s start to the season has been. Salzburg has won 9 out of 9 matches, scoring 47 goals, and conceding 9. He has brought the same gegen-pressing style that earned him plaudits and trophies in New York, and in turn, qualified for the Champions League group stages for the first time since the club rebranded itself in 2005.
It isn’t just the club making history this season. Marsch is the first American coach to win a Champions League group game. Before the month is out, he will get the chance to pit his wits against Jurgen Klopp and the current holders of the trophy Liverpool.
That seems ample reward for a coach that has worked hard and is considered by some to be a torchbearer for American coaches eager to work in Europe. Chances remain few and far between for those wishing to cross the Atlantic, but in Marsch, there is hope at least that luck can meet hard work to breed opportunity.
As for the man himself, perhaps there will be another moment of sentimentality when he steps into the dugout at Anfield, but you can guarantee that right behind it will be a dedication and commitment to his philosophy, one that has carried him from MLS to the UCL.