The young Jesse Marsch never dreamed of coaching a team in the Champions League. It was an outlandish, unrealistic thought. But now that he is a little older, Google “FC Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch,” and it comes with various qualifiers. Depending on what you read, he’s the “first American to coach a team in the Champions League” or, perhaps, “the first American manager to win a European trophy,” as he just did in Austria: His Salzburg side clinched their seventh straight Austrian Bundesliga title on June 28, a title to add to the Austrian Cup they won May 20 with a 5-0 thumping of SC Austria Lustenau. (He was named the league’s Manager of the Year after the season ended last weekend.)
It’s like a boxer. You can imagine hearing the big, booming introduction over the stadium speakers. All the way from Wisconsin, your double-winning champion manager of Salzburg … Jesse Marsch!
Tell the young Marsch this, and he would’ve laughed at you. An American coach in Europe? Never. “They don’t take us seriously,” he grew up thinking.
Back then, his dreams stopped at one day being able to live in Europe and watch the Champions League at night, as was intended. That was enough. Now, as a highly regarded manager in Europe with Austrian champions FC Salzburg, Marsch remembers those teenage hopes. Aged 15, he was on tour with an American regional side at a youth tournament in the U.K., and they were taken to Anfield to watch Liverpool. After watching John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, he went down to the pitch, and scooped up some of the Anfield turf as a keepsake, just in case he never got the opportunity to go there again.
Late one evening in October at Anfield, 31 years on, Marsch was trying to inspire a Salzburg comeback, with his club 3-1 down to Liverpool at half-time in their Champions League group stage match. There were cameras in the changing room for a documentary the club is working on. The clip, which went viral when shared on social media, had us all watching as Marsch addressed his players passionately in a goulash of German, English, expletives and footballing terminology.
“You can’t get emotional all the time … but you can be real,” Marsch told ESPN, remembering that team talk. “That’s a big part of leadership is inspiration but also understanding solutions and how to drive communication home.” Salzburg went on to level the match 3-3 and eventually lost 4-3, earning praise for the manner in which they went down swinging. (One of Marsch’s players that night, Takumi Minamino, ended up joining Liverpool when the January transfer window opened.)
Marsch, 46, is tired of talking about that glimpse now. After all, he’s far more than a flash in the pan. That two-minute video embodied everything Marsch is about: He’s compelling, he shows vulnerability of his interspersing language, he is packed with passion, and he has unwavering trust in the system to be fearless and attack. That’s the philosophy he lives by, and it has seen him guide Salzburg, whom he joined ahead of the 2019-20 season, to even more domestic success. Job done.
He is accustomed to proving doubters wrong, feeling that there’s a “stigma” around American football coaches, but as a trailblazer, he’s changing that to the extent that no one does a double take when they hear about the former midfielder from Racine, Wisconsin, who won a pair of USMNT caps against Trinidad and Tobago and China, being linked with the best jobs in European football.
After starting his managerial career at Montreal Impact and then, after a brief hiatus, as a college coach at Princeton, Marsch took charge of the New York Red Bulls in 2015. He was highly regarded and improved the franchise immeasurably. But halfway through the 2018 season, with New York in a title chase and with the best win ratio in the team’s history, he left to take a role as Ralf Rangnick’s assistant at Leipzig.
Rangnick, an extremely highly regarded German coach, has had a huge influence on Marsch’s life. The current head of sport and development at Red Bull GmbH has been heavily linked with a role at AC Milan, but he started the trend of gegenpressing in German football. Other Rangnick disciples include Julian Nagelsmann at Leipzig, Adi Hütter at Frankfurt, Marsch’s predecessor, Marco Rose, who is now at Borussia Monchengladbach, and Oliver Glasner at Wolfsburg.
When Marsch first spoke to Rangnick, it was like a fire had been lit inside him.
“In terms of my tactical philosophies, I’ve gathered so much from Ralf,” Marsch said. “When we first met when I was at New York, when he started talking about football ideas, concepts and details he has, it really sparked my imagination. I like to play fast football but I learned so much more from him on how to prepare your team on how you can achieve that tempo at every moment in the game.”
After a season at Leipzig, Marsch was appointed Salzburg manager last summer. Although Salzburg are now split from the Red Bull footballing arm because of UEFA rules, Marsch has that Rangnick/Red Bull DNA synthesis running through his veins. They play, in Marsch’s words, “a very strong version of Red Bull football” — attacking, high press, gegenpressing, challenging the opponent every second — and while he’s an unapologetic champion for this style, it comes with self-awareness.
“I don’t want to come across like I have it all figured out, though … [or like] that offense is the only way to do it,” he said. “That’s [the] way I like to do it. It’s the way I’ve found can breed success.”
This goes back to that half-time team talk at Anfield, as he reminded his players of the Salzburg way. But systems are all well and good; you still need to add meat to the bones.
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Although Marsch was attuned to Rangnick’s footballing philosophy, he sees the game as 25% tactical and 75% mental, with good communication essential. Former USMNT coach Bob Bradley has long been one of Marsch’s mentors, but as Marsch embarked on his own trip to Europe at Leipzig, he remembered how Bradley struggled for acceptance at Swansea City.
“Bob inspired me. I think one of the big reasons I even thought about the possibility of moving to Europe was because Bob tried it. I have the utmost respect for him,” Marsch said. “But I watched the way the media treated him [at Swansea], and I felt in some ways, it’s easier to go to somewhere that speaks a different language because they’re almost more forgiving when you make mistakes.
“I understand the stigma involved with being an American coach in England, right? Like, they don’t take [it] seriously. That’s OK. We have to earn the right. My approach has always been holistic: to try to adapt [to a new club] but also be myself and make sure the team is a representation of things I believe in.
“Speaking German is a big part of that. I tell them [the players] I don’t speak German with them because I think I’m good at it. … I make mistakes in every sentence. German’s a brutal language, too. It’s brutal. But I’ve gotten much better. It’s really helped me understand the people within the communities I’ve worked on in both Germany and Austria. I’ll say that it’s been really anstrengend — the word for difficult, time-consuming, stressful — but it’s also been incredibly rewarding.”
Marsch is fascinated by character and motivation, as well as the role language plays in coaching. In his office, he has a folder filled with a number of phrases and examples of motivational techniques taken from history, sport and literature. He also showed his players the documentary “The Last Dance,” and though they were too young to remember Michael Jordan in his prime, he wanted them to learn from his relentless push for success.
The folder came out when Marsch sat with his captain, Andy Ulmer. He has 17 major titles to his name. Where do you go after you win your eighth title on the bounce at Salzburg? Well, for Ulmer, Marsch developed a narrative around his captain that he wanted him to feel like Austria’s version of Muhammad Ali.
“At [New York Red Bulls], I used to talk about Ali. He used to talk a lot in the media, and he later said he did that because he was trying to convince himself he was a champion,” Marsch said. “So I used Ali and Ulmer. I even asked him about [how] he keeps himself successful. He spoke about his preparation and drive, and we created terminology around Andy being the greatest Austrian player to ever play. It’s about trying to uncover little clues to understand how and why players play.”
His own player-facing growth narrative is about stretching his limitations. “Going out of your comfort zone and being vulnerable: Those are the only ways to grow,” Marsch said. “It’s the only way to get better: making mistakes, learning from mistakes. If I’m going to talk about that, then I certainly have to be the best example of it.”
His method works. Tyler Adams, the USMNT and Leipzig midfielder, worked under Marsch at New York. He is the archetypal Marsch player: Adams can play almost anywhere on the field, understands the philosophy from all sides and has a thirst for learning. When asked by ESPN how influential Marsch had been for him, Adams was effusive.
“Unbelievably… developing me as a player is one thing, but as a person, a lot of the quality traits I hold and how I felt I could develop as quickly as I could, a lot of it is down to how I could mature under Jesse,” Adams said. “He had these leadership qualities, could pull people aside and communicate. I want to be the best leader I can be — a lot of that came from Jesse. It doesn’t matter who you are. He treats you the same.”
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For Marsch, life experiences have helped mould his coaching philosophy and range of influences. He looks back to the time when he left his first managerial post at Montreal Impact in 2012. Instead of immediately hopping into another job, he took his family travelling. He, his wife and their three children (then aged 5, 9 and 11) went to 32 countries in six months and stayed in hostels, motels and on floors, rather than hopping from hotel to hotel. He met different people and embraced local culture, and it ignited a curiosity inside him.
“It was about understanding humanity … that’s football as well. If you don’t understand multiculturalism or what it’s like for people to grow up in parts of Africa or South America or wherever, then how can you effectively lead a group and understand how to make them better?”
This spell formed part of his itch to see what lay beyond the familiar four walls of MLS, and his career has shown that, as he has gone from New York to Leipzig to Salzburg.
But what doesn’t help your push for relentless success or your reputation for growing talent is when you lose your best players every year. It is an annual challenge for Salzburg.
FC Salzburg’s alumni roster reads like a list of footballing who’s-who. Premier League-winning Liverpool duo Sadio Mane (2012-14) and Naby Keita (2014-16) played there. Minamino, who played in that 4-3 defeat at Anfield, joined them at Liverpool in January. Then there’s Erling Haaland, the prolific Norwegian striker who is scoring for fun in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund. Kevin Kampl, Peter Gulasci and Dayot Upamecano all went from Salzburg to Leipzig, too. It’s a well-trodden path; though the clubs are officially separate, they have an unofficial sister club relationship where Leipzig are traditionally the bigger side and scoop up some of the Austrian team’s best players.
Losing that number of brilliant players might seem careless, but it’s inevitable for a club such as Salzburg. Although they’re dominant in their own division, the money generated from the Austrian Bundesliga and stature of the competition isn’t in the same league as that of the German Bundesliga, Premier League, Serie A or La Liga. To survive and thrive, both domestically and on the balance sheet, Salzburg have to develop from within.
The thing Marsch has always enjoyed most is coaching younger, promising players, and that marries with Salzburg’s philosophy.
“We have a clear identity. It’s about the academy and finding those young, 15- or 16-year-olds and helping them understand the way we play. It’s a specific style, and they then grow as they adjust to the speed and the intensity.”
Salzburg suffered a midseason slump when they lost Haaland and Minamino, going on a five-game winless run. But they found a way to readjust, and since the Bundesliga restarted amid the coronavirus pandemic, they have won seven and drawn two in the league, securing the title with two games to spare.
“You have to be excited for those players when they get opportunities and move on, even though it means sometimes, in the short-term period, you suffer,” Marsch said. “But we used it [Haaland and Minamino leaving] to get better, to get stronger and to develop more, and by doing that, I think we set ourselves up for the success we have now. The goal here is always to try to find the right next young players to invest in our project and help them take their next steps.
“Supporters don’t like it when they leave, but at the same time, we’ve had a great run in the Champions League, won eight titles in a row, so the success of the club’s not suffering. It’s thriving. The challenge here is making sure we aren’t not champions.”
Not long after we talked, one of the club’s latest prospects, 24-year-old South Korean forward Hwang Hee-Chan, was being linked with a move to RB Leipzig. Salzburg are also braced for interest in others, such as young Hungarian midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai (AC Milan and Arsenal were said to be leading the race for his signature) and the Zambian duo of striker Patson Daka and midfielder Enock Mwepu, both of whom have been linked with moves to the Premier League.
“I had this feeling with Haaland that we had the real chance to do something special with him. I have that with Dominik and the other guys. They’re not finished products, but they have the building blocks, and you can start to picture their development path, what they can look like in a month, six months, in one year or two years. It’s clear there are plenty of suitors for them.
“On one level, you can always make an argument it’s better for them to [have] a little bit more time in a safe environment, but on another level, if the right opportunity comes, the last thing you want to do is deprive them of going somewhere that could be life-changing. We’ll see how things progress.”
It comes back to that old maxim of controlling the controllables, and for Marsch, success is judged not only by silverware but also by whether he gets to the stage in managing his team where he has made himself redundant.
“That’s a core principle of my philosophy,” Marsch told ESPN. It is anchored on players and staff taking ownership of their respective roles, leaving him to serve as the conductor. “I tell them what we’re doing in training, I set up the fields, and then before the game, I give them the tactical plan.
“But then I want to be able to sit on the bench and just watch them play.”
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Marsch has come a long way from those days in Wisconsin daydreaming of watching the Champions League. He’s now coaching Europe’s best talent and against football’s brightest minds. He’s aware that other budding American managers will look to him as the example, and he might have the answers as to how they can succeed as pioneers in European football, but he’s wary of rushing.
“People may now perceive me a little differently, and maybe the things I say matter a little more than they used to, but I like to think I’m the same when it comes to what I believe in,” Marsch said. “I’ve grown as a person and as a coach, but at the core, I’m still the same person, you know, as I was growing up in Wisconsin, just trying to do the best job I can do.
“Sometimes when I talk to young coaches, and they ask me, you know, what’s the key to being a good manager, and for me, it’s don’t become a coach because you think you love the game and you want to tactically try to implement a plan. Be a coach if you want to be a leader. The football part is sort of the side effect or the first step. But then all the other things what matter are how you talk to and challenge a group, how you communicate with each other, how you treat each other, how you believe in each other, what kind of relationships you have. Those are the things that really, I think, define what a team is.”
Marsch is happy at Salzburg and hopes for a long stay, but he is aware of his name being bounced around when other vacancies arise. He has been linked with Borussia Dortmund this season, with the Bundesliga giants still looking for a way to overhaul Bayern Munich, but gives these rumours short shrift.
“I believe my secret to life is focusing on the moment,” he said.
When asked if this is standard managerial speak, he added: “Look, it’s not B.S. I love being the manager of this club. It’s amazing — the people, the country, everything. I realise I won’t be here forever — good or bad! But the more I can focus on the moment, the better.”
This season has brought the Austrian double, and the expectation will be to repeat next season and upset Europe’s established order in next year’s Champions League. (Salzburg will begin in the Champions Path of the playoff round, with a two-legged fixture between them and the group stage.) Marsch can’t wait to get going, seeing what young talent comes through the ranks and who will emerge from Haaland and Minamino’s shadow.
One day, when he has finished his European adventure, he’ll return home to Wisconsin. There, alongside his medals, will lie a small part of Anfield’s turf. “I remember I put it in my pocket and have that in a plastic bag back home,” he said. “At the core, I’m still a football fan, you know? I’m living the dream.”
Marsch’s journey into Europe and his success have now enabled others to stretch the limits of their hopes and expectations.