Jesse Marsch: Writing a New Chapter in the History of the Red Bulls
By Bill Alden
The New York Red Bulls franchise of Major League Soccer has a tortured history, featuring big-name players and underachievement. Despite attracting such internationally known players as Thierry Henry, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Juan Pablo Angel, and Bradley Wright-Phillips over the years, the club has never won an MLS Cup in its 20-plus seasons.
So when the franchise underwent its latest changing of the guard last year with former MLS executive Ali Curtis taking over as Sporting Director, popular head coach Mike Petke landed on the hot seat. Curtis fired Petke in January and the smart money was on the club bringing in a high profile replacement. Instead, the Harrison, N.J.-based Red Bulls hired a volunteer college coach toiling 45 miles south for the Princeton University men’s soccer team.
But that coach, Jesse Marsch, was no stranger to the high stakes world of professional soccer.
“The Red Bulls reached out to me, a lot of changes were happening in the organization and they wanted to take the team in a new direction,” says Marsch, 41, a 1996 Princeton alum, who tallied 29 goals and 15 assists in a storied college career before playing 14 years in the MLS. “After I met with them we realized that we had similar ideals and a symmetry on how the organization should be run.”
Many of those ideals stemmed from the deep bond Marsch formed with his no-nonsense Tiger coach Bob Bradley. He played many seasons for Bradley in the MLS and when he left the pitch, Marsch transitioned into coaching and once again teamed up with Bradley. He became an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s national team guided by his Princeton mentor and helped the U.S. make the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where it advanced to the second round of the competition.
Upon the end of the Bradley regime with the national team, Marsch headed north, taking over as the first head coach for the expansion Montreal Impact of the MLS. He led the team to a 12-17-7 record in 2012 but parted ways with the organization after that one campaign.
Taking a hiatus from the game, Marsch embarked on a world tour with his wife and three children, visiting 29 countries in five months. After returning to the U.S. in 2013, he gravitated toward his spiritual home, taking a spot as a volunteer assistant under Princeton men’s head coach Jim Barlow.
For Marsch, returning to his soccer roots helped get him back in coaching mode. “It was awesome, the first thing was working with Jimmy,” says Marsch, who helped Princeton tie for the Ivy League title this past fall.
“It helped to keep me going professionally and personally. I didn’t get involved in recruiting or other things. It was training and games. I enjoyed getting to know all the players and getting reacquainted with the program. There is something about the Princeton student athletes. They are bright kids, well rounded kids. It was a pleasure to work with them. They are there for the right reasons, they are there for the team.”
While Barlow notes that Marsch formed an instant rapport with the players, he points out that Marsch kept the coaches on their toes with his Bradley-like attention to detail and straight talk.
“I think the players responded well, they could see from day one how much it mattered to him and that he was spending so much time helping the team,” recalls Barlow, noting that Marsch had put together a big binder filled with training exercises, drills, and the like that the coaches dubbed the “Marsch Methodology.”
“He immersed himself in all training activities day to day. Jesse made us better coaches. He is strong willed and opinionated. He would challenge us on training plans. He made us better coaches. With his personality and passion, he got us to look at doing things differently,” says Barlow.
In taking the helm of the Red Bulls, Marsch is looking to instill the passion for the group that he relished during his stint coaching at Princeton.
“In the pros I am trying to implement that team culture, it is just at a higher level,” explains Marsch. “I think in the past, the organization revolved around a few superstars. My message was that there was going to be a culture shift. I was careful not to denounce anything that had been done in the past but made it clear that moving forward, it is not about the individual, but what the team can do.”
While the termination of fan favorite Petke, a former star player for the club, prompted a firestorm of protest from supporters, Marsch isn’t about to be bogged down in public relations issues.
“I am focused on doing the job and making sure that the team grows,” maintains Marsch, noting he was “hardened” in the “right way” through his experience in Montreal. “I am not here to win a popularity contest. Once we get to where I want us to be, I think they will be there and supportive.”
Barlow believes Marsch’s shared philosophies with Bradley will help him win over the fans.
“I think when you look at the similarities, it is so much about stripping down things that don’t matter,” says Barlow. “It is about focusing on the things that do matter and that you can influence. The focus is on the job and what he has to do to make his team better.”
The physically fit Marsch, who could be seen riding his bike through the streets of Princeton over the last two years and appears to have remained at his playing weight of 170 pounds over his 5’11” frame, thrives on the grueling schedule that comes with his job.
“We go through a lot, physical work, training, putting in new points, we are thorough with video and analysis,” adds Marsch, who typically puts in 11-hour days, arriving in Harrison at 7AM and leaving at 6PM.
“I am trying to build sophistication into the players. I want them to continue to grow and handle more sophisticated things but ultimately get to the point where everything is clear. I think they were looking for a lot of the things that I am about and they have bought in.”
It didn’t take long for the Red Bulls to buy into Marsch’s approach as the club went 3-0-2 in the first five games of his tenure. “The only importance of the results is that it validated what we are doing. I want us to develop an identity, a way of playing and way of training,” asserts Marsch, who likened his preferred style of play to an energy drink. “If we do that right, the wins will come. The process is more important than the results. We have gotten younger and more athletic and more up tempo. We are going after teams and playing a type of football that hasn’t been played in the MLS.”
After working with Marsch the last two years, Barlow is not surprised to see an immediate transformation in the Red Bulls.
“He needs to be coaching, he needs to be working with a team, that is where he is most comfortable,” says Barlow. “It certainly seems like the players are fighting for each other. They are playing entertaining soccer, fast-paced and up tempo. They all seem to be on the same page.”
Marsch, for his part, is hoping to author a special chapter in the history of the Red Bulls.
“I have found the right fit, hopefully I can call this home and lead this team to glory,” says Marsch, who is still residing in Princeton. “We want to be the best. I feel we are on the right course, we are building a foundation for the future.”