There was so much that was new and dynamic about Jesse Marsch’s first year in charge of FC Salzburg. For Marsch, it was a new team in a new country in one of Europe’s most iconic cities. And even amid sky-high expectations, he delivered a league title, as well as qualification to the group stages of the Champions League. The Racine, Wisconsin native managed a budding superstar in Erling Haaland, now of Borussia Dortmund, and even gained notoriety with a viral video of his German/English halftime speech against Liverpool.
But the game waits for no one, as Marsch knows all too well. The compensation, in terms of both praise and money, has already been paid. And a manager’s reservoir of trust from the players, in terms of decisions both on the field and off, eventually has to be refilled.
So now an even greater challenge awaits, that of keeping the momentum going. This is trickier than it sounds, even for a team as relatively well heeled (at least by Austrian Bundesliga standards) as Salzburg. Keep things too much the same, and the message gets stale. Change too much, and information overload begins to hamstring the players. And so Marsch has set out on a quest to find balance and move Salzburg forward, with Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Bayern Munich his latest opportunity to do so. Even during his vacation, he found himself taking notes on how to improve the team.
“My message at the beginning of preseason was: How good can we be at the things that we’re good at?” Marsch told ESPN via telephone. “And then also add a few other things that we think can still make us even better. But I find that you can’t get too cute with trying so many new things because you have to understand also how to be true to yourself and in the past what’s made you good.”
Marsch is keen to have his side play even more aggressively, and at a higher tempo — not exactly easy given the high-pressing style his team already uses. But he’d also like to see his team do more in possession, while also continuing to incorporate more young players.
“And then the daily work is to keep the individual motivated and getting better and getting better,” he said. “That’s everything from a top player or captain to academy players.”
With a year under his belt as a manager in Europe, Marsch’s tactical plan and way of training are already well established. For that reason, he finds about 70% of his time is devoted to man-management and the mentality of the group.
That process has required some tweaking over the course of Marsch’s career, especially as he’s encountered different cultures in different locker rooms. There are times when a player that comes from nothing feels more allegiance to his family than the team. There are other times when the impulse of a player is to lash out at everything around them — including the coach — rather than to look within. There is also the reality of where Salzburg fits in the global game. It’s very much a club that players are hoping to use as a stepping stone to bigger stages, much like Haaland did last year with Dortmund and Takumi Minamino did with Liverpool.
That pressure can create more of an inward focus.
“I found that creating a group mentality was a lot easier to do in the U.S. than it has been here in Europe,” said Marsch. “They don’t do a lot of personal reflection and think about how their actions actually affect the group. And so my way is always to try to create a responsibility within the player pool to each other, not to necessarily the coach.
“That’s even a new concept here. When I would talk to players when I first came here, whether it was Leipzig or here in Salzburg, about how when they behave selfishly, [I’d say] they’re not just letting themselves down, but they’re letting the group down. Forget about the relationship with the coach. That should be one of their last motivations. If the players are proving themselves to see each other and giving of themselves to each other every day, then they’re all going to be successful.
“That’s one of the things you have to do: convince the group that it benefits all of them to give to each other because when the group succeeds, the individual succeeds.”
One way Marsch addresses this is through a heavy amount of squad rotation, especially with the Champions League once again taking a prominent place in Salzburg’s schedule. Marsch adds it’s important to spread the wealth early in the season, the better to keep players engaged. Through just six league games, 23 players have made at least one appearance.
“Then [squad rotation will] benefit you later in the year, when a player’s suspended or an important player is hurt,” he said. “You know now you need one of these players that maybe isn’t in the normal 11. When you need him in the most important games, he’s ready. And we certainly found that out with our group last year when it came to the championship round.”
That emphasis on the collective has long been at the forefront of Marsch’s philosophy, and it was a light that went on for him when he served as an assistant under Bob Bradley with the U.S. men’s national team. As a player, all Marsch — a ball-winning midfielder in his playing days — thought about was winning. When he started coaching, he realized that he was missing a lot of small details that could help players, and the team, over time.
“I started to see that actually creating the process, and creating clues for each player as to how to move themselves along on a daily basis or weekly basis, then they would be more able to commit to what we wanted them to do and thus help the team more,” he said. “When you do that as a team with each individual, then typically what happens is you control results more.”
Marsch has also long had a desire to develop young players, and it was this philosophy that created friction with his bosses during his first head coaching job in 2012 with the Montreal Impact. In Montreal, Marsch’s knowledge of MLS meant he was brought in to establish a foundation. But there was a strong impulse from upper management to bring in established stars like Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio. Marsch is well aware that it was his job to adapt, but the club’s approach still made him uncomfortable.
“My way of leading is about engaging everybody and treating everybody like they’re on the same level,” he said. “And [Montreal’s] was a little bit more about prioritizing certain people or certain situations. For me, that always puts the team in stress.”
Marsch is clear that if he had the opportunity to do things over again, he would “100%” go to Montreal because he learned so much. But in retrospect it’s obvious that philosophically there was a disconnect between the club and the manager.
And so, the two sides agreed to part ways. Marsch, still under contract, took the opportunity to travel the world with his family. But eventually, that trip (and his old Montreal deal) came to an end, and the extent of the leap he had taken into the unknown by leaving became apparent. There were interviews aplenty. Marsch recalls as many as seven and yet he wasn’t finding the connection, the philosophical alignment he wanted.
“My wife and I had many conversations where I contemplated leaving football, coaching college, what to do next,” he said.
When it finally came time to interview with the New York Red Bulls, Marsch felt it was more of the same given the Red Bulls’ history of signing big stars like Thierry Henry. Little did he know that a philosophical sea change was afoot.
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“The first thing I said to them is, ‘I don’t think I’m your guy because the ideals of the club and the superstar overspending don’t seem to match what I think about a team in football, which is all about teamwork, and people being together and everybody giving to each other,'” he recalled. “And actually, that conversation is exactly why they hired me. So that was the key for me.
“Without Red Bull, I don’t know where I’d be, honestly.”
Marsch’s subsequent success in New York, winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2015, made him a rising star within Red Bull’s global soccer hierarchy. He also stayed true to his ethos of bringing along young players, with the likes of Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga eventually heading to Europe.
At Salzburg, Marsch has continued that approach, although it has its drawbacks. In the middle of last season, Haaland was sold to Dortmund and Minamino was transferred to Liverpool. But Marsch acts more like a proud parent. In his view, if he creates the proper environment, if he pushes and engages with the player in the right way, then he is going to end up on a bigger stage.
“If you do your job, well, they’re going to leave, because that’s the way it works,” he said. “When Erling Haaland leaves, and now when people ask me, ‘Can he be the best player in the world?’ I say, ‘100%, absolutely he can,’ and I believe that. And so that’s partly pride but it’s also just pure joy of having a chance to work with such wonderful young men who have so much potential.”
A one-year spell as an assistant under Ralf Rangnick at RB Leipzig followed his time in New York, and beyond what Marsch learned in terms of tactics, the real benefits came from learning German and the street cred that came with already being in Europe under such a respected manager. The link to Leipzig worked against Marsch at first, with the banner “Nein zu Marsch” — meaning “No to Marsch” — sparking to some early challenges. But the Salzburg fans have since been won over, so much so that the fact that Marsch is an American rarely, if ever, enters the conversation.
“I feel like I’m much more now judged on how the team plays,” he said. “A big reason why I learned the language and I worked hard to adapt to who we are and what we do with our fans and everything is so that they don’t judge me for anything other than how the team plays. That’s the goal. But to get to that goal, I mean, I even understood that pedigree meant something. So when I went to Leipzig for a year, and we had a successful year in Leipzig, and I work here with Ralf Rangnick. Did I learn a lot? Yes. But the pedigree of doing that maybe was as important if not more important than actually what I learned.”
That process of assimilation and gaining acceptance is one that every American that heads overseas has to go through. And with Weston McKennie landing at Juventus and Christian Pulisic already at Chelsea, there is a sense that attitudes are changing toward American players as well. Marsch detects progress, but feels there is still a way to go.
“I still think that we’re caught in a day and age where the American is thought to be tactically not great, technically not great, but an incredible mentality and a work rate, that competitiveness, that’s higher than most,” he said. “But we’re slowly evolving to where we have more and more young players that are more technically gifted, and that are more tactically sound, along with the athleticism that we have and the will to compete. The key is can we keep driving more and more the things that some of our weaknesses and match them with some of the things that are some of our strengths? Christian is doing well. Tyler’s doing well. Weston’s doing well. We just need to keep moving that needle.”
As for Marsch, the early returns so far this season are positive. Salzburg is a perfect six out of six in the league and once again qualified for the group stage of the Champions League. After tangling with the likes of Liverpool and Napoli last season, Marsch’s side have been placed in Group A alongside Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Lokomotiv Moscow — with a draw against Lokomotiv and a valiant 3-2 defeat to Atletico in the books so far. Marsch relishes the test, one that is intense on all fronts.
“You have to be really sharp in game preparation to know what you’re going to need on that day and how to make adjustments,” he said. “But the other part is, especially with a young team, making sure that you’re confident in your presence and in your messaging that when the big games come, that they know that their leader believes that they can manage the game, that they can win the game. So I think that it’s a test in football acumen, but also a test in courage and the ability to help a group believe.”
For now, the reservoir of trust in the manager remains full.