For years, cross-Atlantic sporting relations have revolved around the ‘Football’ vs ‘Soccer’ debate. Will Jesse Marsch’s appointment as Leeds United head coach spark the change in Brits’ perception of Americans?
In a recent interview with The Athletic, the newly appointed Leeds United head coach Jesse Marsch said, “To grow up as I did and where I did, to be here now feels almost impossible.” His hiring as Leeds United’s next head coach has sparked a sensation in both sport and popular culture. For the past two years, an American TV series streaming on Apple TV has not only dominated the Emmys but has also piqued the interest of football fans who wonder what would happen if this were to happen in real life. Ted Lasso tells the fictional story of an American football coach taking the reigns of a top tier English team. The simple idea that the America vs Britain cultural divide can be reduced to the soccer vs football debate gives the beautiful game a savage flavour. In the case of Leeds United, the appointment of an American soccer coach in Yorkshire had a polarising effect on the fans. Jesse Marsch is not the first American coach in England, he is not even the first coach in the Premier League, but his journey from Wisconsin to Yorkshire has already demonstrated his development as an astute tactician.
The damned debate
There has always been a prejudiced attitude toward American soccer coaches in Britain. The way spectators looked at Bob Bradley when he was the manager of Swansea City or even Chris Armas on the Manchester United bench tells the total story. Interestingly, this attitude is somewhat subdued towards American players who have played for several British clubs. The likes of Tim Howard, Zach Steffen, and, most recently, Christian Pulisic, among other US players, have been able to persuade British fans to judge them based on their on-field performance rather than their accents.
However, fans are rather harsh on coaches, especially Leeds fans. After all, it is the club that fired 36 managers in 22 years in their quest to get back to the Premier League. A coach from America, particularly one from Major League Soccer (MLS), carries the baggage of the North American sports league structure, which is made up of franchise and minor leagues and the stigma of “soccer”. This is in stark contrast to how football has operated in the United Kingdom since its foundation. However, this separation stems from a cultural rather than a commercial one. Football’s identity varies depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, which has fueled the football vs soccer dispute throughout the years.
British fans still consider their clubs to be important members of the community, and their distaste towards American sports franchises stems from these institutions’ working-class beginnings. Football, on the other hand, was formerly a working-class sport, but that is no longer the case. Although it is not the Super Bowl, the Premier League has become the best league in the world since it has the most money and makes the most revenue. British fans are proud of the working-class roots of their football clubs and somehow see the American capitalist sports system as beneath them. As a result, the idea that an American coach has a negative image among supporters is uncharacteristic of the times we live in.
The fact that an American coach is the coach of an English football institution has created a stigma among fans. From the fan channels to podcasts, several Leeds fans were extremely apprehensive about Marsch before his appointment. And this has nothing to do with coaching acumen or how good a tactician the individual may be: it is about the way he speaks. His accent and nationality were scrutinized mercilessly by the fans online, and words like “soccer coach” and “American coach” were used in a derogatory manner to justify his unsuitability.
Marsch, a highly regarded coach with an impressive resume, has worked hard to get to where he is now. To reduce all of his accomplishments and years of hard work to a very silly football vs soccer debate is, at the absolute least, pathetic.
Jesse Marsch’s journey from the Midwest
In the same interview, Marsch relived a trip to Chicago during his childhood that had a profound impact on his life. After spending an entire afternoon kicking a ball around in the backyard with his cousin he fell in love with the game of football. Marsch grew up in Wisconsin in the 70s and at that time soccer was an elusive sport, but his parents took notice of his passion for the game about which they knew very little and decided to take him to a sports centre. Back in the day, most of the young midwestern folks were into Ice Hockey, Basketball or American Football, but this wasn’t the case for a young Marsch. He went on to earn a soccer scholarship to Princeton University and was named to the All-American XI in 1995 after scoring 16 goals as a midfielder and forward. As a professional, he played as a midfielder in MLS for DC United, Chicago Fire and Chivas, winning a number of trophies. He represented USNMT in two matches.
Upon retiring he reconnected with Bob Bradley who had managed him in Chicago and was by now head coach of the US Men’s National Team. He began his journey under his former manager as an assistant. This was his first experience of coaching and, when Bradley was sacked in 2011, Marsch quickly moved into a head coach role at Montreal Impact. In what was the Impact’s first-ever season, Marsch guided them to seventh in the Eastern conference, before leaving the club. And after a three-year break, during which he took six months off to travel the world with his family, he became the head coach of the New York Red Bulls, winning the MLS Supporter’s Shield and being named the MLS Coach of the Year in his first season.
Crucially, this was his first introduction to the club’s network within which he developed his coaching style. Marsch certainly made an impact in New York, departing the club as its most successful manager by the number of wins. While there he was exposed to the rest of the Red Bull network; New York, Salzburg and Leipzig would share training camps, and there was regular sharing of coaching and tactical concepts, at least until both Leipzig and Salzburg qualified for the European competition.
These conversations included Leipzig head coach Ralf Rangnick and Helmut Gross, key figures in the Red Bull set-up at the time and in July 2018 Marsch moved to Germany to solidify the connection to Rangnick, becoming his assistant. Although signed for two years, Marsch was only in Leipzig for one. He moved to Salzburg in 2019 to replace Marco Rose when the future Dortmund Manager coach was appointed at Borussia Monchengladbach.
Marsch’s tactics and philosophy have been greatly influenced by the Red Bull Network’s approach to football. In a podcast interview in August 2019 with The Other Bundesliga, Marsch stated, “Red Bull’s footballing ethos is fast. We like to play faster than the opponent, we like to think faster than the opponent, and there are a lot of tactical details that go into exactly what that means: pressing, gegenpressing, playing forward, playing in transition.” Red Bull’s approach opened Marsch’s eyes to a new brand of football, which is radically different from his playing days when intense pressing was not a big component of the play.
He won two consecutive domestic doubles in Austria before reaching his final destination in the Red Bull network. At the beginning of the 2021–22 season, Marsch took over as the new head coach of RB Leipzig, succeeding Julian Nagelsmann.
Over the years, Marsch has shown a preference for the 4-2-2-2, in which the two wide midfielders tuck inside to create a narrow attacking band between the opposition line when in transition. He has been quoted as saying that the formation is less important than the principles: speed, pressing, verticality. Marsch regularly makes tweaks in positioning without adjusting the overall style of play. He is also tactically flexible, using other setups, especially a 4-3-1-2 or a midfield diamond.
Jesse Marsch is known for his attention to detail and said that the way the Red Bull network focussed on training and football-specific vocabulary to communicate concepts “enthralled” him. He has demonstrated his tactical brilliance in European competition throughout his time at Salzburg, with the Austrian champions catching the eye of spectators for their fluid performances against big European opposition in the Champions League. It also aided Marsch in establishing himself as a dynamic young tactician who plays attractive and swift football.
It’s hard to believe that a team can come back when they are 0-2 down in the first half and loses four key players to injury in any game, let alone a Premier League game. Through a stoppage-time winner, Leeds United completed a spectacular comeback to beat Wolves 3-2 in a tense contest at Molineux. The Leeds fans in the Molineux away stands kept singing even in the most trying of circumstances, because they believed, and they had to believe.
The whites have had an odd season; they are currently struggling for Premier League survival. Every year several Premier League teams sack the managers of their underperforming teams during the latter half of the campaign in a bid to survive. Most of the time they put their faith in seasoned European managers to steer their sinking ship. However, the Yorkshire team has already let go of the man who restored Leeds’ faith in them, replacing him with Jesse Marsch.
In the post-match chat, Marsch said that he doesn’t want just to survive but to thrive in the Premier League. His upbeat, aggressive, fast attitude towards the game has reinstalled belief in the seemingly deflated team. Coincidentally, “believe” is also the motto of Ted Lasso and he also takes the charge of a fictional AFC Richmond fighting to survive. The similarities and differences between Ted Lasso and Jesse Marsch are striking; let’s hope Marsch can be much better than what Ted did with his fictional team in terms of results.
Let’s hope Jesse Marsch bridges the gap between soccer and football, bringing the two cultures closer together by keeping Leeds where they truly belong. As Marsch stated, if he can take the club to new heights, the fans may be willing to overlook his terrible accent.