History-Making American Marsch, Salzburg Have Fearless Approach for UCL Task

Avi Creditor

There's a distinct American hue to this season's UEFA Champions League. Plenty of Americans have played in the competition and left their mark, of course, while one, Jovan Kirovski, has been part of a team that's won it all. 

But there's something refreshing about the 2019-20 batch of Americans under Europe's brightest spotlight. There's a group full of up-and-coming USMNT talents, with Christian Pulisic's Chelsea set to face off against Tim Weah's Lille and Sergiño Dest's Ajax. Tyler Adams's RB Leipzig may well be the favorite in a balanced group featuring Benfica, Lyon and Zenit-Saint Petersburg. Then, there's the new frontier: an American manager on the sidelines in the group stage.

Jesse Marsch left a successful platform with the New York Red Bulls for the club's parent company's German and Austrian properties, and it's with the latter that he's poised to make history. With RB Salzburg qualified for the group stage of the Champions League for the first time, Marsch will man the sidelines in the Champions League in a group that features two title-winning coaches in Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) and Carlo Ancelotti (Napoli). Not to be overlooked is the reigning Belgian champion Genk, whom Salzburg will welcome to the Austrian edition of Red Bull Arena in Tuesday's group opener.

"Obviously it's a big task for us and two massive opponents and two well-coached teams, and that's really what goes through my mind is how good can our team be against some of the best in the world and on the day just making sure that we do everything we can to give our guys the best chance to be successful," Marsch said on the most recent episode of Planet Fútbol TV, when asked about going head-to-head with some of the game's greats. "So of course coaching against the best coaches in the world with incredible success and history is always an honor and interesting, but what's most important is the performance of our team."

Marsch, 45, is cut from the Bob Bradley cloth of being open to new experiences, absorbing all of the information possible from each of those experiences and using it to evolve as a professional. It makes sense, given that Marsch emanated from the Bradley coaching tree, a former assistant on his U.S. national team staff before venturing into MLS with the Montreal Impact and eventually the Red Bulls.

His historical achievement is as much a reward for his ambition as it is a deserved nod for taking a less-traveled route–that being leaving a head coaching job for an assistant position at RB Leipzig, which already had hired a new head coach that would be coming in the following season. With Marsch having no shot of preventing the inimitable Julian Nagelsmann from presiding over the Leipzig bench, he showed Red Bull's footballing braintrust that he was indeed an asset, one valuable enough to take charge at its Austrian powerhouse. He signed a three-year deal at a club that has won six straight domestic titles but, like Marsch, has the ambition to eye much more. 

The storybook aspect aside, though, whom does Salzburg have in uniform who could trouble the likes of Napoli and Liverpool? Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly-Kostas Manolas center back partnership is, on paper at least, one of the most imposing in the world, while Ballon d'Or contender Virgil van Dijk is Liverpool's safety net. They'll all try to corral 19-year-old Norwegian striker Erling Braut Haland. If the name sounds familiar for a couple of reasons, it should. His father was former Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Manchester City and Norway international defender Alf-Inge Haland. This past spring, at the U-20 World Cup, the younger Haland made history by scoring a record nine goals in a single match, dominating Honduras in a 12-0 win that was ultimately a futile effort to get Norway to the knockout stage.

At Salzburg, the 6-foot-3 behemoth has been Marsch's go-to scorer and leads the Austrian Bundesliga with 11 goals in seven matches. This past weekend, he notched a hat trick–his second of the season–fresh off a pair of appearances in Euro 2020 qualifying vs. Malta and Sweden, his first two caps at the senior level.

David Geieregger/SEPA.Media/Getty Images

"Erling's special. He's a special talent, a special guy. At 19 years old he's an incredible professional," said Marsch, who lauded Haland's work ethic and penchant for putting in extra time at the training facility to prepare. "That's what I think makes the best young players special–their mentality, their attention to detail, their desire to be the best. I saw it every day with Tyler Adams, and now that's the case with Erling. I think the sky's the limit for this kid. We've seen him get better and better. He's on the radar of so many big clubs in Europe already right now. But here and now he's with us, and I think he's ready to make a big impact in Champions League."

Haland is part of a young Salzburg nucleus that Marsch says is approaching the Champions League with exuberance. Marsch said that he's been rotating his lineup in league play in preparation for the schedule congestion ahead and that regardless of who suits up, Salzburg has one collective mindset entering the competition.

"We believe in the depth of our squad and we believe that we have a really good young team, and we're going to need that," Marsch said. "I think that this group right now is prepared for that. We're young, we're dynamic, we're explosive and we're aggressive. And that's what you're going to see from us in every game that we play. When we go into Champions League the one thing that we want to do more than anything else is to go for it. We're not going to hold anything back, we're going to make sure that we're aggressive and we're going to try to play our way."

The outlook is admirable, though the consensus would figure to be that Salzburg has little hope of escaping a group with last season's largely unchanged competition winner and a side that should challenge Juventus's dominance in Italy. If Salzburg leaves itself susceptible at the back, Liverpool and Napoli boast two of the most explosive sides in Europe, capable of punishing such a bold and brazen approach. Just like the notion of an American manager on the sidelines of the Champions League, though, Marsch has his eyes on rewriting what's considered to be the norm.

"No matter what your group is, you have to play to your strengths," Marsch said. "When you look at how athletic we are, how talented we are, how fearless we are, how aggressive we are, we have to play to who we are and to what our best qualities are. And that's one of the great things about coaching young players is they have this mentality like they're going to be there every year.

"I swear guys like [Dominik Szoboszlai] and Erling and Max Wober, they all think that they're going to play in Champions League every year and that this is right where they belong and this is right where they're going to be. So we're going to use that. We're going to make sure that when we go on the pitch in Liverpool at Anfield, or whether it's Tuesday at home against Genk, that we go on the field and that we play aggressive and that we play with confidence. And that's a lot of fun for a trainer, to give them the tools to be successful and then to let them go and play. That's certainly what's gotten us to be a good team so far this year."