On Tuesday afternoon, former Chicago Fire player Jesse Marsch will make a little piece of American soccer history, when his RB Salzburg team plays its first UEFA Champions League group stage game of the 2019 campaign. Marsch will become the first American coach to lead a team at this level of Europe’s elite club competition.
Marsch is a first year coach with Salzburg, having assisted RB Leipzig to a Champions League place in the Bundesliga last year. He’s made a flying start in the Austrian Bundesliga — with his team winning its first 7 games, including a 7-2 win in its last game, to stand 5 points clear at the top of the league heading into the Champions League group stages.
Marsch spoke with me in pre-season, in an extensive interview for the first quarterly Chicago Fire alumni newsletter. Now in honor of one of Chicago’s own flying the flag for the American game, here are some extracts of that conversation:
On leaving Chicago at the end of his career
I was the type of player where at the end of every year there was never too many assurances, and I never had a guaranteed contract in 14 years. But I will say, more appropriately, when I knew I was leaving, there was so much — I mean I’d played for D.C. — but Chicago, I’d been there for 8 years and it was my club. I felt like that was my home. And I briefly considered retiring, because I loved the area and I loved the team. And that’s a reflection on the fact that the club meant so much to me.
On adapting to different cultures
I’m from Wisconsin. It’s not a very eclectic place! I went to Montreal and I tried to learn French. I went to Germany and I tried to learn German. I’m going to Austria and I’m trying to adapt my German into Austria. Everywhere I went I tried to learn about the culture and the people, and to make sure that I honored that in the job.
Because that is part of the job. Understanding who the people are and what they’re about. What drives them? And when you’re a leader, it can’t just be about you. So, the two words I would use would be “adaptability” and “vulnerability”. And I think they work with each other.
Obviously being able to adapt and adjust and learn and grow is so important in all of these new roles. And then being vulnerable and not always having the answer. Not always sounding right. I’m open about making mistakes and that I’m not perfect. I think that can really ingratiate you with people and it draws people near to you. And when you can always show appreciation for who they are and what they care about, then I think that that’s how I mold my leadership.
On coaching RB Salzburg
The people in Salzburg are incredible. They’re really genuinely good people, who have built a club with a big heart that cares about people, and development and young players. So, it’s an exciting time right now for many reasons. But the reason that’s most exciting actually has little to do with football and more to do with people.
There’s clearly a philosophy of play. And I think that if you’re a coach in this network you have to really believe in it. You can’t just learn it and teach it; you have to believe in it.
And when you do, you become addicted to this way of play, and you almost feel like it’s the only way to play the game. And obviously I know that’s not the case, but it’s the way I feel.
And yet obviously there’s still flexibility within the system for each coach to have his own ideas for how to apply the system. And from that I’ve learned a couple of things. I’ve learned, one, that more than anything, what’s most important is that you have a way. If it’s not our way, OK — everybody should have their own opinion. But you should have a way. You have to define a system of play that’s more than just about formations. That’s more than about attacking or defending. That literally details the entire package.
And I think that the best coaches in the world do that. Their philosophy of play is so clear and distinct and structured, that it becomes easy for the players to execute.
On his goals this year
The whole reason I’ve come to Europe is — of course there’s ambition involved, and it wouldn’t be right to say there’s not ambition — but it’s more about “Can I take my overall philosophy of leadership and apply it within the most competitive environments in the world of sport?”
And I learned from Leipzig that, as much as it’s a performance based club — and in the German Bundesliga, the pressure for results is so high — that the tenets and the beliefs that I had were almost what the club needed and that rewarded us in a big, big, way. Almost to the point where I think that if they weren’t included — if the care for each other was not included, and the ability to give and play and compete for each other wasn’t included, or doesn’t become as big a part of the team — then I don’t think there’s any chance in hell that we would have been as successful this year.
So that will be my goal at Salzburg. And Salzburg already has that. They’ve already got a group that’s totally committed to each other. So, my job will be to come here and just adjust it a little bit to the way that I do things, and then invest in the relationships and in the team in a way so that everybody believes in me, and in turn believes in each other.
On lessons he carries with him from Chicago
I would say… “Total commitment to each other”, “Playing for each other”, yeah… “Doing things the right way”, “Treating each other the right way” …” Giving everything you have to the group”. That was Bob Bradley, right? Bob was a football detail guy too, but what he cared about the most was that everybody was responsible to the team.
I would say, to a man, and to everyone in the Fire club, the selflessness in the team and in the club was so big. It’s what I learned. The more that the team was successful the more that everyone was successful. And the minute that anyone in the team would start to lean towards self-interest, that’s when the success would dip. And so, we always had to remind ourselves that we all benefit from giving as much as we can for the overall success of the team.
I still think that no matter what organization you’re part of, that that’s a big key.
On the success of his generation of Chicago players
I certainly am proud of so many of my ex-teammates and the work that they’re doing now, and how we’ve become such a big part of the infrastructure of the league. So, I’m really proud, not just of the successes we had as a team, but the successes we’ve had now that our playing careers are over. So, it’s great to see and I’m not surprised. Because it was a really special group of people. And the Fire fans too should be so proud, because that club was one of the first real clubs to build this league the way that it is now. So that’s really cool.