Premium/Free to Read: Jesse Marsch is the Closest Thing to a Real-Life Ted Lasso
(Maybe Someday He’ll Watch the Show)
LEIPZIG, Germany — Late-night dining options are scarce in Germany, unless you have a taste for currywurst or doner kebabs, so it was welcome news that Leo’s Brasserie was still open after midnight following Leipzig’s electrifying 4-0 victory over Stuttgart last Friday. Still amped from his first German Bundesliga win as a head coach, Jesse Marsch had barely taken a sip of his beer when the first of several photo-seeking fans stopped by his outdoor table. “That was a great game!” the bearded man, who was wearing a red-and-white Leipzig jersey, said in German. “The players feel your energy. You have to keep pushing them like this! This was exactly what we need.”
“Yeah, we’re going to keep going. Full gas! Full power!” replied Marsch, who has risen higher than any other U.S. coach ever in European soccer by taking over a club that was a UEFA Champions League semifinalist two seasons ago. “We’re not done. We’ve got more to do.”
“I’m trying to create more vulnerability here … I don’t want to be part of any relationship in my life where I feel like there’s a hierarchy.” — Jesse Marsch
On and on they came, including two young German women (“I hope you have a good time here!”) and an overserved supporter who tried to sit down at the table. (“Nein!” Marsch said with a laugh before posing for a picture with him.) The outpouring was an extension of what happened earlier at Red Bull Arena. Marsch had returned to the locker room after the game when the hardcore fans, having already saluted the Leipzig players, began chanting for the coach himself to come out. Marsch demurred at first. “Anytime that I separate myself from the group and create attention for myself, it puts in danger the message that I try to create always, which is that it’s the group, it’s the team, it’s everyone together,” he said. “However, they made it pretty clear to me that I had to go out.” With Bulli the Red Bull mascot at his side, Marsch led the fans in a raucous cheer, the soccer equivalent of a curtain call. “I’ve never done that before,” he marveled afterward, “never even seen it before.” Marsch was so pumped that he ran around giving high-fives to the grounds-crew guys repairing divots on the field.
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The 47-year-old Marsch, a native of Racine, Wis., hasn’t watched Ted Lasso, the hit comedy series about an American football coach who takes a job as a soccer manager in England. And that’s remarkable, considering Marsch is the closest thing anywhere to a real-life Ted Lasso. “I've been told by many people that I need to see it,” he says. “I love Jason Sudeikis, so I’ll take it as a compliment, but it sounds like it’s basically an American football coach who’s kind of an idiot who I think has success. Does he have success?”
Marsch isn’t a Lasso carbon copy, obviously. Unlike Lasso, he knows plenty about soccer, having won nine trophies in a 14-year MLS playing career and having coached since 2010, including as an assistant for the U.S. men’s national team at that year’s World Cup and a head coach for three teams owned by Red Bull (New York, Salzburg and now Leipzig). And he can talk for hours about soccer tactics, not least his push to restore a purer form of the Red Bull philosophy—high-pressing, forcing turnovers, scoring on transitions—at Leipzig after two seasons of more possession-oriented positional play under Julian Nagelsmann (who left to take over nine-time defending Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich).
But Marsch is banking his success at Leipzig on what he sees as a revolutionary concept in Germany, one that could come straight from the School of Lasso: that creating an American-style human connection with his players and investing in a collective team identity can provide a competitive advantage in a sport that often has ultra-fine margins. “Vulnerability is not a German trait, and I’m trying to create more vulnerability here,” he says. “I’m trying to hear the players’ opinions more. I’m trying to get them to give more of themselves. I’m trying to get them to commit to each other at a higher level. I’m trying in every way to see how hard I can push them to have total belief in each other. And it certainly requires me to be vulnerable. This idea of what a coach is here in Germany always has to do with having distance from the players. And maybe I even went through some of that as a player. But now I don’t want to be part of any relationship in my life where I feel like there’s a hierarchy or I have to act differently than who I am.”
If he’s here, then he’s going to go for it completely, and he’s going to lean into the conviction that the American mentality can be a benefit, not a hindrance, in European soccer. That’s Ted Lasso in a nutshell.
If gathering your players together and spending two hours asking their opinions on how nearly everything should be run inside the team sounds like a scene from a Ted Lasso episode, well, that’s because it is. After dinner one night during preseason camp in Austria, Marsch met with the six players from the team’s leadership council and peppered them with questions. What do you think of the training center? What kind of training habits do you like? What should the mentality of the team be? What kind of goals do we want to set? “A lot of those guys have been at this club for six or seven years and had never really been asked their opinion,” Marsch says. “So for two hours they ate it up. They were engaged. They wanted to give more. They knew it was a safe space, and they knew the goal was that we needed to create common ideas about how we were going to go about our business.”
Marsch has even told the team when they’re doing something he’d prefer not to do—such as holding a training session at a time preferred by the players—because he knows if he disregards their early-season opinions they may not volunteer their ideas in the future. He’s got plenty of Lassoisms, even if he doesn’t realize it. Vulnerability? Marsch knows his German isn’t perfect, but he speaks it anyway at press conferences. (The only issue he has with the German media, he says, is when they try to “fix” his quotes and have him saying “my team” or “my players” when he always says “our team” and “our players” on purpose.) Coaches in European soccer almost never take responsibility for a loss, but Marsch did exactly that after Leipzig’s surprise league-opening 1-0 defeat at Mainz, saying he didn’t have enough tactical solutions that day.
No, there’s no BELIEVE sign posted in Leipzig’s locker room, Lasso-style, but there are signs in English that say WE CAN DO ANYTHING. And while Marsch says Leipzig still has a lot of work to do on embracing his collective leadership philosophy, his approach is starting to resonate. Willi Orbán, a 28-year-old Hungarian national team defender who has played for four Leipzig coaches in six years, recently told DerSportbuzzer: “I haven’t had a coach so far who has been this close to us. He says to us, ‘Boys, your problems are my problems.’ That gives you a tremendous feeling, and for a coach like that you walk through fire.”
Marsch likes to say that as a kid from Wisconsin he had “a 0.0 percent chance” of being the head coach of a team that finished second in the Bundesliga the previous season. But if he’s here, then he’s going to go for it completely, and he’s going to lean into the conviction that the American mentality can be a benefit, not a hindrance, in European soccer. That’s Ted Lasso in a nutshell. Old-fashioned American kindness is a big part of that, but so is the refusal to say something is impossible. “It’s a little bit of reckless abandon, a little bit of arrogance, a little bit of self-belief and grit, and then the willingness to do whatever it takes,” Marsch says. “The fearlessness to be here. It’s a different way of talking about things than Germans would talk about it.”
“American to [Europeans] is that we don’t really know football. It’s hilarious, because you see the influence that Americans are having now around the world … But one thing that Jesse brings here, and that I brought here, is that winning mentality that Americans have. Americans do everything to win.” — Tyler Adams
Tyler Adams, Leipzig’s 22-year-old U.S. midfielder, has known Marsch since Adams was 15 and signed a homegrown contract with the New York Red Bulls. Two years after coming to Germany, Adams smiles when asked what the word American means in the German soccer culture. “American to them is that we don’t really know football, to be honest with you,” he says. “It’s hilarious, because you see the influence that Americans are having now around the world. I mean, Christian Pulisic won the Champions League. I think we’re slowly starting to gain that respect, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But it’s still: Americans don’t know football, you guys call it soccer, so what do you know? But one thing that Jesse brings here, and that I brought here, is that winning mentality that Americans have. Americans do everything to win. People here know Tom Brady because he’s a winner. So whenever you speak about winners, American names always pop up.”
Not surprisingly, plenty of people in the German soccer establishment question Marsch’s approach, arguing that he’s too much about emotion and mentality and not enough about the tactics of the game. Why didn’t Marsch have a Plan B in the loss to Mainz? Why does he hug everyone so much? And who is this American to tell Germans that our traditions of coaching—which have led to four men’s and two women’s World Cup titles—are too hierarchical?
Don’t worry—Marsch has heard all of it, even when he was in Austria coaching Salzburg. “People want to simplify what you are and put you in a box,” he says in response. “They want to define me based on where I’m from or how I speak. But the best way to define me as a coach is how the team plays. I’ve had places where they didn’t like me at the beginning. I just say: Give the team a chance. If the team doesn’t perform with passion and heart and belief and commitment, then you can say, ‘You know what? I don’t like him.’” He laughs. “But if the team does the opposite, then you kind of have to like the coach.”
Let’s make something clear: I am not a neutral observer when it comes to Jesse Marsch. We’ve been friends since 1994, when we were both 20-year-olds who got sick and shared a room for a few days at Princeton University’s McCosh Health Center. We watched that year’s Winter Olympics together on TV, and I got to know the guy I covered for the school newspaper on Princeton’s soccer team, which was led by future USMNT coach Bob Bradley. If you had told us that 27 years later I’d be a soccer writer interviewing Marsch in Germany for a story on him coaching a top Bundesliga team, we both would have laughed you out of the room. MLS hadn’t even started yet, and nobody (not even Jesse) thought he’d become a professional soccer player, much less a coach. And while I had a goal of writing for Sports Illustrated, I hoped I’d be covering basketball—not soccer, in which the U.S. media had shown next to no interest for decades.
Yet somehow we both made it here. Over the years, I was in the stadium for Sports Illustrated for some of Jesse’s biggest moments: when his Chicago Fire, coached by Bradley, won the 1998 MLS Cup as an expansion team; when Jesse kicked David Beckham in the midsection and started a melee in a 2007 game between Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy; when the USMNT, with Jesse as Bradley’s assistant coach, won its World Cup 2010 group on Landon Donovan’s last-second goal against Algeria; and when Jesse’s Erling Haaland-led Salzburg came back from 3-0 down to tie Liverpool 3-3 in the UEFA Champions League at Anfield in 2019—he ran down the touchline Mourinho-style to celebrate the equalizer—only to end up losing 4-3. If I could start my own new writing publication by being in the stadium for Jesse’s first Bundesliga win with Leipzig, well, that would be kind of perfect.
In the basement storage unit of my New York City apartment building, I still have a yellowed 1996 Daily Princetonian clip in which Jesse, who’d had a surprise All-America season his senior year, says he’s hoping to get drafted by a second-division U.S. pro team. But MLS was starting that year, and D.C. United—with Bob Bradley as an assistant coach to Bruce Arena—selected Marsch with its last pick in the college draft. Jesse was just nine spots from being the MLS version of Mr. Irrelevant (the final pick of the draft), and he had a choice to make: accept a job offer to go into advertising in Chicago on a $45,000 annual salary, or take a risk and become a pro soccer player. “Bob convinced me to kind of gamble on trying to be a professional for a couple years, and he thought I could be good enough,” Marsch says. “My first contract was $6,750 with D.C. United, and then I had a developmental contract with [the minor-league affiliate] Hampton Roads Mariners. At the end of the year, I made a little over $40,000 [thanks to performance bonuses], so I lost money that year.” Though Marsch didn’t play much with D.C. that season, he did earn an MLS Cup winner’s medal—just as he would the next two years with D.C. and then with Bradley’s Chicago team.
Marsch’s coaching preparation started in earnest in 2000. A mid-level European club offered him a playing contract that was slightly better than his MLS offer, but he and his wife, Kim, who were expecting their first child, decided to stay in Chicago. “So I re-signed with MLS on a really bad contract,” he says, “and I made the decision that I was going to be a coach.” He started doing the work to obtain his coaching licenses, and during MLS offseasons Marsch would visit former American teammates in Europe—Brian McBride, DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan and others—to attend training sessions and speak to their coaches and sporting directors, taking furious notes all the while.
After retiring as a player in 2009, Marsch became Bradley’s U.S. assistant for nearly two years and then spent one season as the head coach of the Montreal Impact. He departed with a mediocre record (12th-best in a 19-team league), the only negative stint of his coaching career. “But it was probably the most important experience,” he says. “I had an idea in my head of what I thought the job was that I think was wrong, and I needed to learn about how to work with people and lead better. That’s when I really think I developed who I am as a coach and what my leadership ideas are and how to invest in people more.”
Yet more than two years would pass before Marsch coached another pro team. Not long after Jesse left the Montreal job, he and Kim had dinner with another couple, who asked a question: What do you want to do? But they weren’t looking at Jesse. They were asking Kim. She and Jesse had been together since their high school days in Racine. “I was 16,” Jesse says. “I got my driver’s license on my birthday and asked her on a date two days later.” They married in 1998. Kim had been a social worker in Chicago until their second child was born in 2003. She answered their friends’ question: If there wasn’t a job to start for Jesse, who’d received a severance from Montreal, then she’d love to travel. And so they did. Jesse and Kim pulled their three kids—daughter Emerson, then 11; and sons Maddux, 9; and Lennon, 5—out of school and spent the next six months visiting 33 countries, including Nepal, India, Vietnam, Egypt and a host of European nations.
“We were just like, let’s do it,” Kim says. “Let’s show the kids that you can live without technology and experience crazy things and go through incredibly hard things. That through struggle comes strength. We’re all going to see things that will be incredible. And it was. We did everything on the cheap. The kids were like, ‘Can’t we get a nicer hotel?’ No, we’re going to sleep with the mouse poop!”
Upon returning to the U.S., the family settled in New Jersey, where Jesse helped the Princeton men’s soccer staff while seeking pro head coaching jobs. “I was second in seven interviews in MLS,” he says, “and I was worried I would never find the right people again.” But his experience with the New York Red Bulls was different. After a promising phone interview, general manager Marc de Grandpre invited Jesse and Kim to a dinner with him and his wife.
“I can handle it if you don’t get hired because of you,” Kim told Jesse, “but I can’t handle it if you don’t get hired because of me.”
“Honey, you can only help my chances,” Jesse replied.
The couples hit it off, and Jesse got the job. As part of the process, he spent time with Red Bull’s international soccer braintrust, including head of global football Gérard Houllier, director of football Ralf Rangnick and CEO Oliver Mintzlaff. Marsch traveled to observe the training sessions of Leipzig and Salzburg, and Rangnick (an innovator of the high press) “explained to me the entire philosophy from A to Z,” Marsch says. “I almost couldn’t believe what they were describing to me at the time. It was so complex and aggressive tactically in so many different ways. But it fit me. I said: This is going to work.”
Marsch’s team became a force of nature. During his first season, the Red Bulls (without any star players) won the 2015 MLS Supporters Shield with the league’s best regular-season record, and they did it again in 2018. Marsch was there for only half that campaign. In June of that year, Red Bull sent him to Leipzig, where he spent a year as Rangnick’s assistant. Then came two seasons as the head coach at Salzburg, where Marsch won the Austrian league and cup double both years and competed toe-to-toe with Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Napoli as the first American to coach in the UEFA Champions League. A Hard Knocks-style video of Marsch’s impassioned halftime speech in Salzburg’s wild 4-3 loss at Liverpool went viral in October 2019, replete with his F-bombs and half-German, half-English exhortations. (Marsch is still chagrined over its popularity, since he prefers not to be singled out.)
From his current position managing LAFC, Bob Bradley has kept in touch with Marsch over the years, observing his former player and assistant’s growth as a coach. “Jesse has done a great job of taking his playing and coaching experiences and thinking about them,” Bradley says, “and then turning that into how he wanted his team to play, how to implement ideas. Ideas on the kind of culture that he wanted to create and what his leadership style was going to be all about.”
Last season Marsch’s name kept being reported as a top candidate for the head-coaching positions at Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Celtic in Scotland. But in late April, Red Bull announced that Marsch would replace Nagelsmann at Leipzig this season. It was Jesse’s dream job. Nobody knew that six weeks later the Marsch family’s life would turn upside-down and he’d consider leaving Leipzig before he even started.
It’s a mid-August Tuesday night at the Marsch household in Leipzig, and soccer is on the television. Bayern Munich and Dortmund are playing in the German SuperCup, but Jesse flips over to watch Salzburg, his old team, against Brøndby in Champions League qualifying. In a welcome change, all five family members are together. Kim and their three children arrived from Salzburg three days ago. Emerson, 19, has a month before returning to Scotland for her sophomore year in college. Maddux, 17, will soon head back to Salzburg, where he’ll live in his own apartment while finishing the last two years of high school. (Jesse likes to empower more than just his players.) And 14-year-old Lennon, named for the Beatles legend, will stay in Leipzig with his parents and their two pugs: Maizy, 5, and a new puppy, Bean, that Kim and the kids are picking up tomorrow. Everything is a little chaotic—moving boxes are still everywhere, and Jesse had a hard time finding the TV remote—but having the whole gang together after spending seven weeks by himself in the apartment is priceless.
In May, a few weeks before returning to the U.S. on a family trip, Kim had scheduled a routine checkup with her doctor in Salzburg. She was turning 50 in January and hadn’t been in a while. She underwent a mammogram and an ultrasound, and after returning from their vacation went in for a biopsy. Jesse was with her when the results arrived. “The doctor said, ‘I’m so sorry, you have cancer,’” Kim says. She was so surprised, she checked the folder to make sure it was her name on it. A flood of tests and scans of her organs followed. For three agonizing days, the Marsches waited to learn if the cancer had spread in her body, waited to know if her prognosis was promising, or if she had just a few months to live.
Finally … relief. Doctors said the cancer had not spread. In late June, surgeons removed nine Stage I breast tumors and five lymph nodes from under her left armpit. “They found pre-cancerous material in my lymph nodes, but I’m lucky that they caught [the cancer] just before it could have spread to my lymph nodes,” Kim says. “Which is amazing, because your lymph nodes can carry it all over your body.” Soon she’ll start anti-hormone therapy and radiation treatment, but she won’t have to do chemotherapy. “I feel great mentally and physically,” she says. “The survival rate is really good.” She hopes sharing her story will help let people know they should get checkups, including women in working-class Racine who might have put them off.
During those three days in June when they didn’t know if Kim would be facing a more severe diagnosis, so many things passed through their minds. Family. Friends. The future. During an interview at the Leipzig training facility last Wednesday, Jesse says, “When we realized that everything was going to be okay, I told our CEO, Oliver, that he was close to having to find a new coach. This is an opportunity, I think, for Kim and me to be closer, for us to realize how fragile life can be, for us to enjoy our family and our children. And it’s an opportunity to say, you know, let’s keep going for it. We’ve got one shot at this, you know…”
Marsch brings a hand to his face. He’s crying. “It hasn’t shaken us,” he says, “as much as it’s reinforced the things that we believe.”
Now I’m crying too. A few minutes earlier, we had given permission to a German TV crew doing a story on Marsch to shoot us during our interview, with their cameras outside the glass-windowed room. They surely don’t know our history or what we’re talking about, and must be thinking: These Americans are really into their feelings. Jesse laughs and offers a fist bump.
“Maybe this scene can be in the Class of ’96 notes section of our alumni magazine,” I say jokingly.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m laughing and crying at the same time. German cameras and two crybabies.”
The U.S. is co-hosting the men’s World Cup in 2026. And while the vast majority of the planet’s top soccer coaches are in the week-to-week club game, not the international game, Marsch can’t help but envision coaching the USMNT in a World Cup someday. Current U.S. boss Gregg Berhalter has won two trophies this summer by beating archrival Mexico, vaulting the Yanks into the top 10 of the FIFA rankings for the first time since 2006, and he’ll lead the U.S. into qualifying for World Cup 2022 starting next week. But after Qatar 2022? Coaching the U.S. at a World Cup on home soil would be a plum job for anyone.
“It’s a dream to be here [in Leipzig] and coach this club, and the national team is a dream for any coach,” Marsch says, acknowledging that his high-pressing style would be an ideal fit for the USMNT. “It’s hard to picture what the future is going to look like. Is it 2026? Is it a possibility later? I don’t know. I think Gregg’s doing a good job. The team as of this summer I think is on track, which is great to see, especially after all the criticism he’s taken. I’ve been very supportive of him publicly and privately with our relationship. That’s all I can say. I certainly don’t want to tread on anything that Gregg’s doing, but I also would love the opportunity at some point.”
“You cannot say here in Germany … that we’re going to beat Bayern [Munich], we’re going to win the league. But I mean, of course. Of course. I love this team. I love this club. I came here to win titles. That’s my job, you know?” — Jesse Marsch
Marsch wants to accomplish a lot of things, and he’s not afraid to say so publicly, even if that too is frowned upon by sections of the German Fußball community. Bayern Munich has won the last nine Bundesliga trophies, a preposterous run of success, but acting as though Bayern is invincible is the last thing Marsch would ever do. “The ambition to be the best is not something to be afraid of,” he said over beers on Friday night after the 4-0 win over Stuttgart. “But you cannot say here in Germany that we want to win the title. You can’t say in the media that we’re going to beat Bayern, we’re going to win the league. But I mean, of course. Of course. I love this team. I love this club. I came here to win titles. That’s my job, you know?”
Of all the special moments in his first German Bundesliga victory, though, none was better than celebrating with Kim and their three children after the game. They have embarked on so many unlikely adventures together, from traveling around the world to uprooting themselves and moving to Europe. Now they’re rallying around Kim as she continues her cancer recovery. “I’ve asked them to sacrifice a million things along the way,” Marsch said, “and they have to be able to appreciate and experience the special moments. They have to be able to feel the positivity and the reward for why they’ve done the things they’ve done. Tonight was one of those nights. You have certain moments where it helps validate all the sacrifices that have been made by everybody.”
We’ve got one shot at this. Jesse knows. So does his family. Seeing the five of them together, you couldn’t help but think of the avatar Kim uses on her WhatsApp account, two words that could define not just the Marsches, but the entire approach that Jesse is trying to bring to European soccer: