LIVERPOOL, England — Is it possible for a loss to be the biggest moment of your coaching career so far?
Well, if you’re Jesse Marsch, the first American to coach in the UEFA Champions League, and your Red Bull Salzburg team goes to Anfield, the home of European champion Liverpool, and comes back from 3-0 down to tie the game at 3-3 before finally losing 4-3 ... yeah, that probably qualifies.
A funny thing happened after Salzburg’s first goal in the comeback, a remarkable play in which Hwang Hee-Chan sent Liverpool’s All-Universe defender Virgil van Dijk to the cleaners before firing a wicked shot into the net. The Anfield scoreboard changed from 3-0 to 3-3—incorrectly, of course—and stayed that way for a few minutes. Everyone in the fabled stadium had a good laugh, as though the idea of Salzburg coming back to tie the game was preposterous.
And then it actually happened.
Every bit of those three goals was deserved by Salzburg, which outplayed mighty Liverpool for the first 20 minutes of the second half and sucked the sound out of a stunned Anfield crowd. Takumi Minamino added a second Salzburg goal in the 56th minute, and then emerging teenage star forward Erling Haaland—who’d come on in the second half after spending several days recovering from sickness—made it 3-3 just four minutes later.
After the equalizer, Marsch raced down the sideline like a young José Mourinho at Old Trafford to celebrate with his players, an instant GIF that will live on in social media forever.
“Even as we celebrated the third goal that I was down for, we talked about concentration. Come on! We’re good!” Marsch said afterward in a quiet corner of Anfield. “But we have to understand that to beat the best teams we’ve got to go for the game all the way, but it’s got to be with intelligence and concentration from the first moment. Because when it’s 3-1, you can kind of throw caution to the wind and just say, ‘All right, let’s go for it.’ And then 3-3 required a little bit more savviness and understanding.”
Liverpool, which was desperate for three points after losing on Matchday 1 at Napoli, pushed forward with abandon—manager Jürgen Klopp brought on Divock Origi to form a front four with Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané—and Salah provided the game-winner on a nice pass from Firmino in the 69th minute.
It was Salzburg’s first loss in any competition this season after an 8-0-1 start in the Austrian league, two wins in Austria's domestic cup and a 6-2 win over Genk on Matchday 1 of Champions League. But it was still the most eye-popping result of the season for Marsch’s team. At the end of the game, Marsch hugged every Salzburg player and coach in sight as they thanked their traveling fans, who gave them a lengthy standing ovation.
Marsch may be in his first season as a head coach in Europe, but he’s already in uncharted waters for an American soccer coach. A section of the USMNT fan base may lament that Marsch isn’t the national team coach, but the fact of the matter is he’s just where he should be right now in his career. The Racine, Wis., native is 45, and European club soccer—especially the UEFA Champions League—is the greatest test of any soccer coach in the world, far more so than coaching any national team. Let Marsch go for it in Europe. The USMNT can wait.
Marsch showed his tactical chops by making an astute change with his team down 2-0 in the first half.
"We made a formation switch to a diamond in the middle because we weren’t doing a very good job of getting pressure on them in the middle of the midfield, and they were picking up a lot of second balls,” he explained. “So right away I felt like that helped the game. Then we went down three, but I still felt like with this new formation and our ability to cover the field a bit better we were going to still find a moment. The goal right before half was big for us, because it gave us a chance to go in at halftime and talk about a couple things and come out and push as hard as we could.”
That’s exactly what happened. It’s worth noting that Salzburg gave Liverpool everything it could handle even though its best player (Haaland) was on the field for only the last 30 minutes.
“Preparing to play against Liverpool was so much fun,” Marsch said, “because to watch how this team plays, the passion that they have, the style in which they play, the quality, and now trying to think about ways to strategize how to play against them, that was a lot of fun.”
After the final whistle, Marsch and Klopp paid their respects to each other, the famous Liverpool manager saying over and over again in German: “You guys played great. That was a crazy game.” But it’s part of an ongoing European adventure for Marsch and Red Bull Salzburg, who can seriously entertain competing to advance from their Champions League group.
After all, Napoli got only a point on Wednesday in a surprise 0-0 tie at Genk. Red Bull Salzburg gets Napoli at home next on Oct. 23 and then visits Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 5.
“The other result was good for us tonight,” Marsch said when asked about Salzburg’s qualification chances. “The fact that we have goals and goal-difference right now is a good thing. It’s probably going to come down to these two games against Napoli. How we manage playing in Salzburg has been a big advantage for this club.”
When he was 16 years old, Marsch played in a soccer tournament in northwest England. He got to see a Liverpool game at Anfield, and afterward he snuck down to the field and picked up some soil to take home with him.
“I still have it in a box in my house,” he said on Wednesday, smiling. “I didn’t get any more today. Maybe I should have.”
Not to worry. There will be plenty of memories to take home from this one. Like standing across the touchline from Klopp in a Champions League game. Like erasing a three-goal deficit against a team that’s perfect after seven games in the Premier League. Like earning the respect of anyone who was watching this game around the world.