'Where Are the Leaders in Our Federation?' Jesse Marsch's Impassioned Plea for U.S. Soccer

The RB Salzburg manager lets loose on U.S. Soccer and describes what it was like coaching Erling Haaland before a midseason transfer as he and his family hunker down in Austria amid the coronavirus outbreak.
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Like so many other people these days, Jesse Marsch is hunkered down at home with his family. The American coach of Red Bull Salzburg in Austria keeps in touch with his training staff and players over phone and video calls for now, awaiting a soccer season that may or may not return depending on the spread of the coronavirus.

Marsch spoke to the Planet Fútbol Podcast about what life is like for him right now and Salzburg’s memorable season so far—more on that below—but he also issued an impassioned plea for leadership from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Last week, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro resigned after the public outcry over the federation’s legal strategy in the USWNT’s gender-discrimination case—a strategy that argued women inherently have less skill, ability and responsibility than men. (Vice president Cindy Parlow Cone became the president.)

“It’s been a source of pride for all of us Americans that these women are so good. They’re the best in the world, and frankly they’re heroes,” Marsch said. “And then to see the lawsuit, it’s saddening and disgusting—first that there’s been a group of lawyers who … have only thought so much about winning the case that they’ve lost perspective on what this group of women has done for people in our country. And to refer to them that way, to speak about them that way, I think is a total lack of respect and intelligence.

“What’s more egregious,” he continued, “is when I heard there were people in Soccer House [U.S. Soccer’s headquarters] that hadn’t read what the lawsuit was going to be, and maybe there are people who did and they allowed for that discourse to happen. For me it’s a total lack of leadership, a total lack of judgment. For me, it’s frankly disgusting.

“Where are the leaders in our federation?” he asked. “Where are the leaders in our sport? How can we, especially after failing to make the [men’s] World Cup, now allow this to happen? I mean, I am a coach, but more so I’m a fan of U.S. Soccer. And believe me, this has nothing to do with [USMNT coach] Gregg Berhalter. This has nothing to do with my desire to be the national team coach. This is a bigger question of: Who are our leaders and who is going to take the federation from here? And who can we trust to actually now help the sport in our country become what we all want it to be?”

When asked who might be particular people he might want to see get involved in leadership at U.S. Soccer, Marsch mentioned Jill Ellis, who won two straight World Cups with the USWNT.

“I was in the U.S. pro [license] course with Jill Ellis, and I consider Jill Ellis a friend, and I think she's an amazing person and coach,” Marsch said. “For me she was the most impressive candidate in the entire course. And when we would discuss the future of U.S. Soccer … my basic feeling was, forget about the actual X's and O's and what's going on the field right now. What we need are people who can stand in front of the U.S. Soccer community right now and lead.

“And that's from the CEO of U.S. Soccer, the women's coach, the men's coach, the GM, whatever positions you want to create. But we need a group of people that can stand in front of the U.S. Soccer community and make us believe that we're working together, that we believe in each other and that we're all in it together.

“Because I worked for U.S. Soccer under Bob Bradley, and it was very divisive at that time. And it's only gotten worse. And this is from a fan base perspective. This is from a leadership perspective, this is from a player pool perspective across the board. For me that is the first step. Who are those people? Well, what we're learning more is who those people aren't.”

In a time of crisis, you need leadership. That’s obviously most important during a global and national emergency with many lives at stake like the coronavirus. But it’s also true on a far smaller scale with U.S. Soccer.

“This is not a campaign to be the national team coach or the GM or anything,” Marsch said. “But the one thing that I would take very seriously if I were in any of these roles is how can I unite the football community in USA? How can I use this platform to unite U.S. Soccer, club soccer, academies, MLS, youth national teams, men's, women's, everything combined? Because the only chance we have to really tap into our potential is if everybody believes in a common purpose and everybody works together.”

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RB Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch

Of course, Marsch is spending most of his time these days laying low at home with his family and trying to do his job via phone and video meetings. His daughter, Emerson, had stayed in Leipzig to finish her last year of high school, but the family went to pick her up and bring her back to Salzburg ahead of the borders being closed soon thereafter.

Austria also has the Julian Nagelsmann of heads of state—Sebastian Kurz is 33 years old—and Marsch says he has been impressed so far. 

“Austria has really handled this whole pandemic really well,” Marsch said. “Between them creating some rules and some guidelines for the people here to try to control the spread of the virus along with the solidarity of the people has meant that I think Austria has a really good chance to be one of the leading countries in managing this crisis.”

Salzburg’s last game was March 8, and its last training session was last Friday. 

“Our guys have been given home programs, so a lot of them have treadmills,” Marsch said. “And if not, they're able to jog on the streets, so that's still O.K.. But there's a one-meter distance that's required from contact from all people. So it's quiet. But there's a sense of community here.”

Marsch said his club hasn’t had any coronavirus cases, but he has spent significant time on the phone with his players, many of whom are still teenagers who are alone and living away from their families.

Right now there’s just so much uncertainty, as there is everywhere. UEFA postponed Euro 2020 for a year, which theoretically would give domestic leagues a chance to finish their seasons by the end of June.

“It's unclear if we're unable to finish the league exactly the direction that UEFA will go,” Marsch said. “Will they just cancel the whole league? Will they leave the league as is right now? How will they try to finish? What will happen with Europa League and Champions League? As of right now, we're scheduled to play April 5, but I think everybody knows that's unlikely.”

To put it mildly, this has been an eventful season for Marsch in his first year at Salzburg. His upstart team played well against Liverpool and Napoli in the UEFA Champions League, including a memorable 4-3 defeat to LFC at Anfield. After dominating the Austrian Bundesliga, Salzburg sold its two biggest stars in January when Erling Haaland, the most exciting new prospect in Europe, went to Dortmund and Takumi Minamino went to Liverpool. Since then, wins have been harder to come by in Austria, and Salzburg is currently in second place in the league.

“There's a big learning curve here when you're in Europe,” Marsch said. “I learned a lot about the German Bundesliga last year [as an assistant at RB Leipzig]. But now I've been a head coach, and working in the Austrian league there's a few things that are different than the German league. Our winter break is a lot longer. It's a lot more of a selling league, so there's potential for you to lose more players in the winter—which also means that it can feel like starting over again with a new team.”

Meanwhile, Marsch’s name became a lot more recognized in Europe, partly for his team’s performances in Champions League and partly for the fiery, half-English, half-German locker-room video that emerged of Marsch’s halftime talk at Liverpool. The video ended up getting views in the multiple millions.

“I'm aware of the fact that the video has made me more of a public figure and a little bit more known,” Marsch said. “But it really hasn't changed the way that I go about my work. For me, it's always about maximizing the potential of what a group is. That's my focus here every day.”

Marsch said he was thankful to be able to coach Haaland for even half a season before the big Norwegian left for Dortmund, where he has continued to score goals at a remarkable rate.

“He's a special personality,” Marsch said. “He's clearly an incredible talent. I mean, his athleticism, his speed, it right away puts him in the upper echelon of talents in our sport. And then you add his desire to be successful, his mentality every day, the way he works at his technical ability, the way he works at his finishing every day, how much he puts into trying to be the best footballer he can possibly be every day.

“He cared about the team … Right now he's dealing with a little bit of fame. You know, some of the things that he went through when playing against PSG, and the way that PSG responded to some of the things that that he put on Instagram. So he'll have his challenges, and he's only 19 years old and he's going to make mistakes. But in the end, his desire to be the best is different than anything I've ever seen.”

But Haaland wasn’t Salzburg’s only promising teenager. In fact, Marsch contended, “I think right now we have maybe 15 players that we'll easily be able to sell in the next two years for at least €15 million. So much of what I do every day is not just preparing the team to be successful as a group, but also grooming each individual to maximize their own potential.”

You could say that Marsch did something similar with Tyler Adams, whom he coached with the New York Red Bulls and Leipzig. On a recent Planet Fútbol Podcast, Adams explained that he’d had to adjust this season to not being around Marsch for the first time in years.

The feeling is mutual.

“We speak often,” Marsch said. “I try to be as close with him as I can be but also give him enough room to manage this world on his own. And he can do that. He doesn't need me. But I think it's important that he has somebody in his life that can give him the little reminders of all the things that make him different and make him special.”

“He's gone through a really tough time. For at least six months he was injured. And then coming back, it's also a testament to his ability and also to how highly Leipzig thinks of him that they put him in the lineup as soon as he got healthy … He is a special talent, and he is driven in ways that I think separate him from most other players. But he's also young and he still has to learn how to manage certain situations.

“The thing that's always made him so great is that he's so brave. And the fearlessness of his personality drives his talent.”

Marsch may end up staying in Europe for many more years, but his influence on the American game remains extremely strong.