American Manager Jesse Marsch's RB Salzburg Wins Austrian Cup

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Jesse Marsch became the first born-and-bred American soccer coach to win a significant European trophy on Friday as Red Bull Salzburg waltzed to a 5-0 victory over Austria Lustenau in the final of the ÖFB-Cup, Austria’s national cup competition.

It was Salzburg’s second straight Cup triumph and seventh overall, and it came in the club’s first game back following the pause necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Action in Austria’s Bundesliga is set to resume next week.

Salzburg will have a crack at a seventh domestic double thanks in part to Friday’s victory. Lustenau, a second-division team, was a heavy underdog and trailed by two after 21 minutes thanks to a free kick from Salzburg’s Dominik Szoboszlai and an own goal. Marsch’s side found the net three times in the second half to produce the final margin, then enjoyed the world’s first socially-distanced trophy ceremony on the field at Klagenfurt’s Wörthersee Stadion.

The Cup continued a debut campaign that’s gone well for Salzburg’s manager. Marsch, 46, is new to Salzburg, but not to Red Bull. He spent three-and-a-half seasons managing the New York Red Bulls, winning the 2015 MLS Supporters' Shield, then moved to Europe in 2018 to serve as an assistant at RB Leipzig. The former D.C. United, Chicago Fire and Chivas USA midfielder shifted to Salzburg last summer and made a quick impression in the fall, as Red Bull held its own against Liverpool and Napoli in the Champions League. Marsch was the first American to coach in the competition.

“I couldn't have more respect for what Salzburg are doing here, the way they play football,” Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp said after the reigning-champion Reds knocked Marsch’s team out of the tournament on the final day of the group stage. “Massive respect for Jesse and what they did.”

Salzburg sold striker Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund and midfielder Takumi Minamino to Liverpool and was eliminated from the Europa League by Eintracht Frankfurt, but received a massive boost this week when Bundesliga leader LASK Linz was docked six points for violating coronavirus training restrictions. That leaves Salzburg (14-2-6) with a three-point advantage with 10 games remaining. Marsch is hoping to guide Red Bull to its seventh consecutive league title.

He’s also carrying some of the hopes of American managers who might aspire to make their mark on soccer’s most competitive continent. It’s tough enough to prove you can play there—demonstrating you know the game on that level has been even more difficult. Current USA coach Gregg Berhalter spent a year-and-a-half managing Sweden’s Hammarby, becoming the first American man to coach a European club. That opportunity presented itself thanks to common ownership between Hammarby and the LA Galaxy, which was Berhalter’s final stop as a player.

Then, of course, came Marsch’s mentor, Bob Bradley, who managed clubs in Norway and France before his ill-fated stop at Premier League strugglers Swansea City in 2016. Bradley’s tumultuous three-month stint demonstrated how much perception can turn the tide against Americans working abroad.

Marsch’s job at Salzburg is to maintain the club’s position at the top of Austrian soccer. And despite Haaland and Minamino’s departures, Red Bull appears to be on its way thanks to Friday’s win. The club begins league play on June 3 against third-place Rapid Wien.

“This is an experiment for me to see if my way of thinking, my way of leadership, of relationships, can function in the most competitive world of our sport here in Europe—although I understand Austria is not the highest level in Europe,” Marsch told reporters this month.