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Will Marsch’s move to Leipzig open doors for American coaches?

The most notable aspect of Jesse Marsch being hired as manager of RB Leipzig is how unsurprising the appointment was. Marsch has been inside the Red Bull soccer family for six years, from the New York Red Bulls to his position as an assistant with Leipzig to the managerial post at FC Salzburg and now back to Leipzig, this time as the boss.

While other candidates, including VfL Wolfsburg‘s Oliver Glasner, were in the frame, it would have been something of an upset had Marsch not gotten the job, given the success he’s had at Salzburg, which could end with a second consecutive league and cup double. Marsch’s relationship with Leipzig CEO Oliver Mintzlaff — the two are reportedly good friends — didn’t hurt either.

Yet the excitement within the U.S. soccer community is beyond palpable. The move is being viewed as the latest sign that the U.S. is gaining influence on the world stage, this after several American players — from Christian Pulisic at Chelsea to Weston McKennie at Juventus — have established themselves at some of the world’s biggest clubs. Now the question is when American coaches will get the same opportunities.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said former United States international and current Las Vegas Lights manager Steve Cherundolo, who has extensive playing and coaching experience in Germany. “[Marsch] had an idea when he first went to Leipzig as an assistant, removing himself from the American system and MLS. Now he’s going back to Leipzig as a head coach, so it’s a great development, and in retrospect, the correct decision for his career path. So I’m super excited for him and super excited for American coaches in general to have somebody get their foot in the door.”

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The thinking in some quarters — or is it more a hope? — is that Marsch’s move will open more doors for American coaches. The reality is that it’s much more complicated than that.

Some of it is simple math. There are far fewer coaching opportunities than there are for players. Then there are aspects of culture and language. Sure, English is spoken in plenty of European countries, but there’s really no substitute for immersing oneself in the culture of a club and learning the language. In a profession in which establishing relationships is key, learning the language allows for deeper connections, not only with players, but with fans.

“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,” Marsch told ESPN last September.

Then there’s the challenge of acquiring the necessary coaching licenses. Managers are required to have — or at least be in the process of acquiring — a UEFA Pro license. That takes time, and requires taking courses in Europe. Marsch has spoken of flying to Europe to attend classes for his UEFA Pro license while he was managing New York, a process that took two years. American Joe Enochs, who played and coached with Osnabruck for 20 years before moving to 3. Liga side FSV Zwickau, said it took him four years to start at the bottom of the German system and get all of the required licenses.

“I don’t think we’re about to see a flood of American managers in Europe,” said Jordan Gardner, chairman and co-owner of Danish second-tier side FC Helsingor. “I think there’s a lot of barriers in place for Americans over there at that position.”

All of that said, there is a path for American coaches to get to the top, although it usually involves first toiling in the lower tiers of a country’s soccer landscape. Pellegrino Matarazzo spent nine years as a youth coach and first-team assistant before taking over VfB Stuttgart in 2019. And there are Americans in Europe now trying to do the same. Enochs is one. Brian Clarhaut — an assistant with GIF Sundsvall in Sweden‘s second tier, having managed Umea FC the previous season — is another. Both have taken Marsch’s appointment as a good sign for their prospects and those of others hoping to follow in their footsteps.

“[Leipzig] put their trust in an American coach,” Enochs said of Marsch. “I think it’s huge. He’s definitely a trailblazer.”

Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner spent six years running Salzburg’s academy prior to working in MLS. When asked what the perception is of American managers in Europe, he responded dryly, “There hasn’t been any perception because they’re just not known.”

Those who are known feel there is still a stigma against Americans coaches, even as the country’s players become more respected. Whether that’s fair is up for debate. While Bob Bradley’s stint with then-Premier League side Swansea City lasted all of 85 days, he had success with Stabaek in Norway and Le Havre in France. But Clarhaut is one who can feel the doubts.

“If I was Swedish, I think if I grew up here, I could be coaching [in Sweden’s top flight], for sure,” Clarhaut said. “But I don’t have as many contacts. I haven’t grown up in Swedish football. I do think they’re open more to Americans. Gregg Berhalter was here in the same league at Hammarby. But yeah, you have to be that much better, and I embrace that.”

Bradley and Matarazzo are the only Americans to have ever coached in Europe’s “Big Five” leagues of the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1. That number grows to four if you count Jurgen Klinsmann and David Wagner, both U.S. citizens — Wagner had a U.S. father while Klinsmann was naturalized — but both were born and raised in Germany.

Tanner feels that over time American managers will eventually make broader inroads in Europe. He is critical of the coaching education infrastructure in the U.S., stating that more needs to be done to reach out to coaches at the regional level. But he also notes that the successful teams in MLS tend to have American managers, including his own Jim Curtin.

“There has always been a great coaching culture in this country, just not necessarily in soccer. And [with Marsch] it will not be like Ted Lasso will be coming in; that’s not happening,” he said with a chuckle. “But we have good people here, and by growing the culture, by getting more and more successful on different levels, that [progress] is something which will be coming.”

For now, Tanner feels that the move toward more transition play, a Red Bull staple, is what teams are looking for rather than a particular nationality. He says he gets calls every month asking about coaches he worked with while at Red Bull.

“That’s exactly because everybody wants to play like that, and develop players in that way,” he said.

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Herculez Gomez says Jesse Marsch’s appointment at RB Leipzig is bigger than an American player starting at Barcelona.

One possible door that could be opening is European clubs’ increasing interest in MLS. As the Old World continues to scout the league for the next big thing, setting up partnerships with American and Canadian clubs, the sharing of information and building of networks could better equip coaches on this side of the Atlantic find a home an ocean away. Tanner pointed out that when Marsch took over New York, Red Bull made sure to bring him up to speed on the organization’s approach.

“Red Bull was sending over lots of influential people and mentors to coach the coaches as well, and Jesse is a big part of that,” he said.

Another avenue that could see coaches land abroad is increased investment from American owners. It’s what in part led Bradley to his ill-fated stint with Swansea. When Berhalter took over Hammarby, it was owned by LA Galaxy owners AEG.

“There will be coming the time when they are looking for an American coach to have at least one contact person who is reliable like that,” Tanner said. “That also plays a role.”

But even that will only get a prospective manager so far.

“For us in my projects, we focus on people who have a really good lay of the land when it comes to the domestic landscape,” Gardner said. “For us that would be Denmark. I think the conversation a lot of groups have is, it’s a big task to be a manager of a European football club and I think that transition from North American soccer, per se, it’s a big one.”

If Marsch has done anything, he’s carved out his own unique path, and proved himself astute in latching on with the Red Bull organization in that it allowed him to build credibility with a soccer organization that has its tentacles in multiple clubs. But the concept of European doors opening to American coaches is fragile, perhaps contingent on Marsch succeeding — although his good standing within Red Bull should mitigate that to some degree — just as Bradley’s downfall at Swansea, rightly or wrongly, was seen in some circles as a setback for U.S. managers.

His familiarity with Leipzig — and Mintzlaff — will certainly help. There is also a sense that Marsch’s coaching philosophy, and its emphasis on pressing, is more in line with that of Leipzig when compared with Bayern Munich-bound predecessor Julian Nagelsmann.

“I think Jesse brings a piece of Red Bull back to Leipzig, which they have probably lost a little bit over the last couple of years,” Tanner said. “Jesse has a Red Bull mentality and a Red Bull philosophy, and that will change a little bit from what Julian did, who was more focused on possession.”

But Marsch has had to adapt his approach as well during his time in Salzburg. As the best-financed team in the Austrian Bundesliga, Salzburg often came across teams that would sit in against them, requiring a bit more guile in the attacking third.

“It’s no longer the classic RB brand of football: long balls into the opponent’s half and then chasing the second balls,” one Leipzig source told ESPN about Marsch’s time in Salzburg. The source touted Marsch’s man-management skills, calling him a “menschenfanger” — a fisher of men. That ability was showcased in a stirring halftime team talk against Liverpool that went viral.

Sources confirmed that Marsch was only given a two-year contract, which provides little in the way of job security. But looked at another way, Marsch has always been willing to bet on himself, as exemplified by his taking an assistant coaching position with Leipzig in 2018 after having been a manager with New York. His move to Leipzig as manager, regardless of his contract, is just another example.

There will be challenges for Marsch beyond just trying to qualify Leipzig for the Champions League. There has been some upheaval within the club, with sporting director Markus Krosche leaving in the summer, and the roster is in flux. While keeper Peter Gulacsi recently re-signed with the club, Dayot Upamecano is following Nagelsmann to Bayern while Ibrahima Konate is reportedly headed to Liverpool.

Such a dynamic is nothing new for Marsch, who watched players like Erling Haaland and Dominik Szoboszlai leave Salzburg for Borussia Dortmund and Leipzig, respectively, in back-to-back January windows. But as much as Marsch is prepared for what lies ahead, his success or failure will be dependent on others as well.

But at the very least, Marsch has made some headway. The world, and plenty of U.S. coaches, will be watching.

Additional reporting by Kyle Bonagura, Tom Hamilton and Stephan Uersfeld.

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