By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 11, 2019) US Soccer Players - Jesse Marsch had a simple answer to whatever happened to his club at home against Liverpool in the Champions League. "This isn't about me. It is about the club, the city, the people here in Salzburg," Marsch said about the support he received there.
That's what a coach should say. It's also likely Marsch believed it, with his nascent managerial career possessing enough evidence to suggest he doesn't fake the team-first rhetoric. Part of what made Marsch good enough to be called to Leipzig to apprentice under Ralf Rangnick and given the keys to one of Red Bull Global's European assets is his full commitment to the cause, wherever he may be. That personality trait served him well in New York. It's the thing Red Bulls fans point to first when reminiscing about their former sideline general.
Marsch's Salzburg team fell to Liverpool 2-0 on Tuesday, knocking Red Bull out of the Champions League and into the Europa League as the 3rd-place finisher in Group E. There was no shame in defeat, even at home. Liverpool's world-class talent needed to turn it on in the second-half. This was no easy win. Brilliant work from Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah proved the difference.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp appreciated the challenge that Salzburg presented. In his postgame comments, the celebrated tactician highlighted Salzburg's energy and pressure.
"They are very aggressive, they almost jump you," he said. "I couldn't have more respect for what Salzburg are doing here, the way they play football."
Those words will resonate with Americans soccer still anxious for an American coach to get that kind of recognition at the elite level of European club soccer. Klopp's comments on Tuesday were not the first dose of praise he's given Marsch and his club. Back in October, Salzburg charged out of the tunnel at Anfield for the second-half. They turned a Liverpool lead into a fight that ended 4-3 in the home team's favor. Klopp let everybody know the job his opposite number did.
In Salzburg, Marsch can be correct. It's about the team, not the American coach, blazing new trails. However, in the US, where the game is still growing in influence and the products of American soccer carry with them the burden and curse of Americanness, Salzburg's run is all about Marsch.
The American player made his way to Europe more than 30 years ago. Through the exploits of names like Wynalda and Harkes first, then a wave of players in the 21st century, products of American soccer systems managed to carve out a place in cultures that were previously suspicious of them. Today, Christian Pulisic can take up a starring role for one of the biggest clubs in the world. He helped Chelsea reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League on Tuesday. While it is remarkable, it feels like a continuation of a process that started a generation ago.
No such process exists for American coaches. Marsch is a unicorn, unique in on the Continent as an American-born and American-bred soccer coach leading a top division team. Though he arrived after Red Bull Salzburg had already qualified for the Champions League, simply by stepping into the job he made history.
No American had ever led a team in the Champions League group stage. Even if Marsch and Salzburg had folded and finished well out of the running for a knockout round berth, his efforts would have represented progress for American coaches.
Marsch did better than a participant's award, however. He led his team to the brink of qualification despite their youth and lack of expensive talent. At no point has he looked "out of his depth" in Salzburg. Beyond the simple fact of his club's record, Marsch is earning praise for his philosophy and tactics.
That feels potentially transformative for American coaches. Not everyone is Jesse Marsch. It would be silly to think a wave of American names will suddenly make their way to Champions League-level clubs in short order. Then again, humans tend to make simple connections. Marsch's success could certainly make it easier for other American coaches simply because teams might be willing to consider them.
Marsch himself recently said that in Salzburg, he's "not treated like an American coach". That's a tacit admission that the default setting for Europeans is to treat American coaches with doubt, disdain, or both.
American soccer's long crawl towards full acceptance into the world football community is nearly complete. A group of young players are making their presence known. Major League Soccer draws more and more attention every season. The USMNT is rebuilding after a difficult period, but there's no reason to think that it won't again soon be part of World Cups.
Marsch and Salzburg didn't make it to the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Marsch won't be the first American to coach in that part of the illustrious tournament, at least not this season. Salzburg will move on. There's the Bundesliga and Europe in play. Marsch has already said that his team is good enough to win the Europa League. Coming off of an impressive run in the Champions League, it's not an impossibility. The players are good enough, and confidence exists from the players to their coach.
At some point, the stories might slowdown. Marsch's Americanness will no longer drive interest and the spotlight will slide away. Now that Salzburg is out of the Champions League, there's less reason to focus on what he's doing in Austria. That doesn't mean Marsch's Americanness will stop being important. On Tuesday and throughout the Champions League run, Marsch earned the respect of some of the soccer world's greatest minds. It's not the victory he was hoping for, but it's a victory nonetheless for Marsch and his country.
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Logo courtesy of Red Bull Salzburg