Premium: Preaching Positive Energy with the Yanks of Leeds United (Energy Drink No Longer Included)
America’s Team in the Premier League has a U.S. coach and just spent $54 million on two USMNT stars. But will Leeds’s performance be a referendum on Americans in the world’s most popular league?
LEEDS, England — A few days before the start of the Premier League season, Leeds United coach Jesse Marsch brought fellow American Brenden Aaronson into his office for a private meeting. The topic was the gifted 21-year-old attacker’s development plan for the 10-month campaign ahead. Perhaps more than any other U.S. player these days, Aaronson has a way of showing improvement at a lightning-fast clip. And Marsch, who coached Aaronson at Salzburg two years ago, wanted to remind him that making the jump from producing in Austria to becoming an influential Premier League player was entirely possible. This season.
“I said to Brenden, when he came to Salzburg [at 19 from the Philadelphia Union], in the first few training sessions I thought, Brenden’s in over his head, this might take a while,” Marsch tells me later over a pint. “But I invested in him with video and had a lot of conversations and kept putting him in good training environments. And within three weeks he was one of the best players on the team.”
Marsch lets out a long cackle, the kind he famously unleashed to needle skeptical English media after a big win that helped Leeds stay up last season. “I mean, that is incredibly unique,” he adds, “but it says everything about Brenden.”
There’s an assumption in some quarters that Marsch must be easy on “his guys” Aaronson (transfer fee: $30 million) and Tyler Adams ($24 million), the 23-year-old U.S. midfielder whom he coached with the New York Red Bulls (starting when Adams was 15) and Leipzig. But the truth is something different. Leeds was pursuing Aaronson under Marcelo Bielsa before Marsch took over at the end of February. What’s more, Marsch says he needed a few discussions with Adams before deciding he would be right for Leeds.
“Tyler is obviously someone I know really well, but he wasn’t on my initial radar because I didn’t know if it would be possible from Leipzig, and I wasn’t sure it would be the right fit,” Marsch says. “We weren’t a hundred percent sure Kalvin [Phillips] was going to leave [for Manchester City]. But then, once we realized we might need two sixes, that’s when Tyler entered the picture. I wanted to make sure in the end if he was going to come to Leeds that it was for the right reasons professionally more than even personally. So we had some good conversations.”
To hear Adams tell the story, he thought he had earned more playing time than he was getting at Leipzig under Marsch’s replacement, Domenico Tedesco, but he also felt he had grown too comfortable in a “routine” there. Adams knew that Marsch would be the opposite of easy on him.
“He gave me the start of my career, and we have this relationship that we just get the best out of each other,” Adams told me. “That was super important in my decision to come here. I constantly want a coach that’s going to challenge me, be hard on me, give me the fair opportunities that I deserve but continue to push me, to help me improve and not be satisfied. Jesse challenges me to that point where I’m constantly finding ways to get better, staying after training, doing extra work. And he just has that mentality to continue to push you to your limit.”
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Marsch, Aaronson and Adams are part of a group of U.S. soccer figures who have moved recently to England, many from Germany or Austria. The day before I arrived in Leeds, USMNT defender Chris Richards joined Crystal Palace from Bayern Munich. (Christian Pulisic made a $72 million switch from Dortmund to Chelsea three seasons ago, and Josh Sargent joined Norwich City from Werder Bremen before last season.) USMNT Premier League players this season also include goalkeeper Matt Turner (Arsenal) and Fulham defenders Jedi Robinson and Tim Ream.
“I think it’s just the right time in everybody’s career right now,” Aaronson tells me. “We have a bunch of guys who are taking this next step in their career, where they’re aiming to reach the top. And the top is the Premier League. The clubs in the Premier League, everything’s so professional. Every weekend it’s like a Champions League game.”
Or as Adams puts it, “The opportunity to play in the Premier League was always my dream as a young American. It’s hard to explain to people. It’s like in America you don’t really watch any other leagues. Especially when I was growing up, it was always just the Premier League. So that was always my ambition.”
Marsch is just the second U.S.-born coach in the Premier League—after one of his mentors, Bob Bradley—and spending big to bring two popular young USMNT players to Leeds has put a giant red, white and blue spotlight on the club.
“Any time you can be America’s Team, I think it’s something special,” Adams says.
“I think it’s cool that Americans can really get behind us,” Aaronson adds. “That’s what we need to continue to grow.”
But there’s another aspect in play here. Leeds nearly got relegated last season (with Marsch brought in for the last 12 games) and only confirmed survival on the final matchday. Rightly or wrongly, will Leeds’s performance this season be viewed as a referendum on Americans in the Premier League?
“I mean, of course it can,” Adams says. “It’s obviously such a tough league. We have more depth than we did last season, but it’s still going to take time to come together. You’re going to get judged at the end of the day on how the team performs. I hope we hit the ground running and start to win games bang, bang, bang. But the reality is there are going to be some tough moments. We’re going to grind it out, and I think we have the potential to be a really good team.”
A few days later, Leeds comes from behind to beat Wolves 2-1 at Elland Road in their Premier League opener. Using Marsch’s suffocating high press, Aaronson wins the ball that leads to his team’s opening goal and appears to score the second-half game-winner until it’s later ruled an own goal. Whatever the case, he’s the man of the match. For his part, Adams goes all 90 minutes and (despite a couple miscues) patrols acres of space to win balls.
In the end, Aaronson amasses 31 pressures, more than any other Premier League player on Matchday 1. Adams covers more distance (12.1 km) than all but one player in the league, while Marsch punctuates the important three points by clapping back in a verbal scuffle with the sour Wolves coach Bruno Lage after the final whistle, firing up the home fans even more.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Nine days before the start of the Premier League season, Marsch drives his Audi down the left side of the narrow road leading from the club’s Thorp Arch training ground. He has already said goodbye to a half-dozen staffers at the end of a long work day, and at the exit he stops the car for a group of Leeds fans who’ve gathered here at 6 p.m. on a random Thursday in late July. You get the distinct feeling there are a few every day.
“Hey!” Marsch says, rolling down his window. He signs some autographs. One fan asks him to record a cellphone video for his ailing father, and Marsch holds the phone and pulls off the message on the first take. Another supporter pushes for a second video, and Marsch complies. When he’s done and we start driving away, we get to talking about what makes Leeds and Yorkshire special.
“My wife [Kim] always spoke about energies when we were younger, and I always asked her, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’” Marsch tells me. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve described things more the way that she did when we were younger. And energies to me is like, ‘What’s your gut feeling of situations, of people, of circumstances?’ And from day one, being here in Leeds, I’ve just always had the best feeling about the energy and the connection of what we’re doing here.”
I have to admit, with some measure of embarrassment, that only recently have I discovered exactly where Leeds is located—in north-central England an hour’s drive northeast of Manchester. And it struck me that the first person I saw at the Leeds-Bradford airport was wearing a Leeds United jersey on a day when the team wasn’t even playing a game.
“It’s serious here,” Marsch says. “When you talk about the Leeds United fanbase, you have to talk about Yorkshire. So first, Leeds is the fourth-biggest [metro area] in England. But we’re the only one of those [top four] places that has one [significant] club. So this is a very unified community that believes entirely in this club. Yorkshire people are very open and kind and generous, and it resonates with me being from the Midwest. There are a lot of working-class people, people who believe deeply in this club and what it means to the community. So there’s a major responsibility. I knew that before I came, but I realized the first couple of weeks I was here that this was going to be a unique experience, one that was much different than any other job I’d had.”
Marsch, 48, of Racine, Wis., is a rarity, the first U.S. soccer coach to get multiple opportunities to coach high-level men’s clubs in Europe. It isn’t often that I write a big story about someone just 12 months after I produced a previous one, but so much has happened with Marsch in the past year that it’s warranted. Last December he departed Germany’s Leipzig, the jewel of the Red Bull soccer empire, by mutual consent after just four months of games (and six years with Red Bull teams). There were too many losses. But he was also eager to leave.
In a strange twist, Marsch was deemed “too Red Bull” for Red Bull, too pure in his all-out press-and-attack strategy for a team whose players had grown accustomed to possessing the ball under Julian Nagelsmann (who had moved on to Bayern Munich). And from a vibes perspective, the energy-drink club was lacking the appropriate, well, energy. “The energy in Leipzig, I knew even from my time as assistant that it wasn’t right,” Marsch says. “And I tried to change it in Leipzig, but they weren’t interested in that. And to be fair, they’ve had great success before me and after me, so they don’t need me, and why should they have me there?”
Marsch says he probably would have tried to stick it out at Leipzig, but he was influenced by the breast cancer diagnosis of his wife, Kim, who was going through surgery and radiation treatments. (She is currently clear of cancer.) “It was like, life is too short,” Jesse says. “From day one as an assistant, I didn’t feel like I fit at Leipzig. So you could say it was a mistake that I went back, and maybe it was. But I’m thankful for the experiences I had in Leipzig, because I learned about a lot of different things. I also learned that in the end I want to be entirely myself, and that’s what is most rewarding.”
During the early parts of the Covid lockdown in 2020, late in Marsch’s first season coaching Salzburg, he received word from an intermediary that Victor Orta, the Spanish director of football for Leeds United, was interested in speaking to him. What was supposed to be an informal 30-minute Zoom call with Orta and head of recruitment Gaby Ruiz turned into a three-hour marathon. (Nobody was paying for Zoom, and so they had to resend a new link every 40 minutes.) Marsch was blown away by Orta’s vast knowledge of players, his data-driven approach and his passion for discussing all of it. Marsch told Kim afterward: “I’ve just talked to one of the most interesting people I’ve ever spoken to in this business.”
In their first conversation, Orta shared with Marsch that he had put together a statistical model ranking the 42 best soccer coaches in Europe based on a series of data metrics that Orta considered important to what he was hoping to achieve at Leeds United. The No. 1 manager on the 42-coach list was Marsch.
“I was very honest with Red Bull on every interest that I received when I was at Salzburg, because there was a lot,” Marsch says. “I was trying to think about what was the next best step for me. Victor and I had several follow-up conversations after the first one. But the natural progression for me seemed like: I was a Red Bull guy. I loved the company. I loved the football. It just always seemed right to go to Leipzig. Leeds never offered me anything. They never really approached me for the job, other than the strong relationship that Victor and I had. And toward the end of Marcelo [Bielsa]’s first season [with Leeds in the Premier League], he was doing great. And it came to a point where I had to make a decision on Leipzig, and I did. But in football, it’s a small world and things always come back around.”
After Marsch’s departure from Leipzig, he and Orta didn’t speak until a month later in January 2022. They met once in late January and again in February, and Orta introduced Marsch to several people connected to the Leeds organization. All along, the discussions were about Marsch taking over the team in the summer, after the season was over. But Bielsa’s Leeds didn’t win a game in February, and some of the scorelines got ugly: 3-0, 6-0, 4-0. Relegation was suddenly a realistic threat.
Orta called Marsch: “I think we need you now.” And Marsch said no.
The topic of Bielsa is a sensitive one. The famously eccentric Argentine coach remains a mythical figure to much of the Leeds fan base for leading the club back up to the Premier League after a 16-year absence. (In 2000-01, Leeds even reached the UEFA Champions League semifinals.) Everyone at Leeds says Bielsa brought much-needed discipline and professionalism to the team that hadn’t always been there before his arrival. But Bielsa’s uncompromising, hard-driving methods and reliance on an exhausting form of man-marking just weren’t sustainable over the long haul. Players were shutting down. And his treatment of club staff was questionable. Nobody I spoke to at Leeds said they miss working with him.
Orta wanted a new coach whose playing style would be at least a cousin of Bielsa’s in terms of pressing and high energy, but he also wanted it to be a sustainable environment in which players and staff enjoyed coming to work every day. Enter Marsch, who eventually reconsidered his initial “no” answer to Orta in February.
“I thought about it more, and I thought about it as an opportunity,” Marsch says. “Yeah, of course, the next three months will be brutally intense. But it’s also a chance to start the process earlier, get to know everybody before the transfer window, get to invest in the team and in the things I want to try to achieve with the team.”
Marsch had 12 games to keep Leeds up and avoid relegation, and what he encountered at first was a spent group of players. “I said at one point that Marcelo over-trained, and that became a lightning rod in the media and in the fanbase here at Leeds,” says Marsch. “But if you looked at the team, it was clear to see that mentally, emotionally, psychologically, the team was finished. And now I had to try to find a way to re-energize the group, and a big part of it was making them fresher and making sure they had more they could draw from physically, emotionally and psychologically. So it was the on-field precision of training loads, but it was also the environment that I was trying to create to relieve the stress, the psychological torment of what the situation had become. I feel like we, not just me, we did a good job of that. We managed that well.”
Leeds ended up earning 15 points in Marsch’s 12 games, with seven of those 15 points won after the 90th minute of matches. Still, the team was in serious danger of relegation on the final day. Had Burnley won at home against Newcastle, Leeds would be back playing in the second-tier Championship this season.
Aaronson was a basket case watching the games in a Vienna café with his girlfriend, Milana D’Ambra, and knowing that if Leeds went down his transfer (which had already been negotiated) would almost certainly not end up happening. “I’m not going to lie, it was stressful,” he tells me now. “I had to get out of our hotel room because I literally couldn’t sit there and watch the game. So we’re there watching the game, and I’m just losing my mind. I’m walking back and forth. Because it’s your future, you know.”
In the end, Burnley lost 2-1 and was relegated, while Leeds won 2-1 at Brentford to stay up.
“It was one of our best 90-minute performances,” Marsch says. “After the game, we celebrated like we won the league, except there was no trophy.” He cackles again. “I had more people congratulate me for finishing in 17th place than I think I would ever have in any realm of anything. As Americans, it’s like if you're not first, you’re last. Well, I realized that 17th is sometimes like first.”
Watching a Leeds United training session under Marsch is a fascinating window into how he and his staff work, to say nothing of what they value most. I happen to be here for a Thursday practice three days before the last preseason game, against Cagliari. This will easily be the hardest session of the week. Standing on the periphery along with Marsch’s sons, Maddux and Lennon, who are moonlighting as ballboys, I catch up with Pierre Barrieu, the club’s newly hired head fitness coach and performance analyst. Barrieu is French, but he’s a U.S. fixture at this point after working for the USMNT at World Cups 2002, ’06 and ’10 and for Bob Bradley at Stabaek, Le Havre, Swansea City and Toronto FC.
“When you watch training today, you can see how important the physical work is, right?” Marsch tells me later. “I’m constantly measuring everything we’re doing with every guy, and then as a group. I know the science, and I have a methodology behind the science of exactly what I want to achieve every day and what it means to making fit athletes, strong athletes, footballers, and then making sure that they are fresh and ready to meet the standards of the game that we're in.”
“We’re minutely precise on exactly what is important for us to achieve from a physical standpoint every day,” he goes on. “It’s a science project every day to put together the loading, the tactics, the video, the individuals, the positioning, everything, so that you're developing a precise playing model.”
The players are all wearing GPS monitors. Tom Robinson, a first-team sports scientist, shows me the visual display that in real time reveals total distance run by each player during the session and “high metabolic load distance.” Nobody can hide. As Marsch runs the session, he regularly checks in with Robinson to get a number on the team’s average high metabolic load distance. They’re aiming for 1200 in today’s session.
“Some coaches run really free-flowing training, and I’m different,” Marsch says. “I’m trying to capture intensive moments. They even had to get used to me a little bit because I’m not so worried about repetition as much as I am getting the speed and capturing the lightning of one moment in training over and over and over again at the highest speed and concentration level that you possibly can, and then it comes down. Then what I find is their speed of play, their adjustment to the concepts, everything grows because you’re constantly testing it at full speed, not 80%, 90%, or 95% but 100% moments. It’s trying to create power football.”
Leeds is a team that attempts to pressure the ball and attack quickly in transitions, so it’s not surprising that they spend time today focusing on playing quick diagonal balls to start fast breaks:
Some of the exercises are reminiscent of basketball drills:
And all of the drills are high-intensity and physical, as Tyler Adams finds out here:
When I ask Marsch if it’s overly simplifying things to say that the main differences between his teams and Bielsa’s are that Marsch’s are narrower and don’t employ man-marking, he answers this way:
“What they had done before [under Bielsa] is they had a lot of big distances and accelerations/decelerations, but not a lot of high-intensity running. What we see now is that we are having similar or more distances covered, but the high-intensity running is much higher, and the decelerations/accelerations are much lower because they’re not following guys around all the time. The differences, I think, are probably bigger. It’s not just about not man-marking, it’s about zonal pressing and breaking the bonds of the players from their opponent.”
It’s fair to say that Bielsa never chimed in with a joke on a WhatsApp group chat with all of his Leeds players. But that’s what Marsch does on a regular basis in an attempt to bring his guys together as a unit. When the team was in Australia for preseason games last month, a Leeds fan approached Marsch and showed him his new tattoo:
It was in honor of the moment during the postgame celebration of staying up when goalkeeper Illan Meslier kissed winger Daniel James on the head. “We have a team WhatsApp group, and I’m like, ‘I have to take a f—king photo,’” Marsch says, cracking up as he tells the story. “I take the photo and send it right away, and WhatsApp just blows up.”
Already, Marsch says, he can tell that the Leeds players are embracing his playing style and the culture he’s trying to create far more than the Leipzig players did last season. And while Marsch’s former Red Bull players Adams and Aaronson are new to the team, their prior knowledge and the respect they’ve already earned are helping the group as a whole.
“Both of them, from the beginning, have made a real positive impression within the team,” Marsch says. “And the one thing I underestimated, I think, with those two and [former Salzburg right back] Rasmus Kristensen is I knew they would help us from a playing perspective, but they’ve had such an incredible impact on the player pool for the players to understand more clearly, exactly what we’re looking for from the behaviors and tactics of how we want to play.”
For their part, Adams and Aaronson have had some culture adjustments of their own. Some haven’t been so easy. “Driving on the left side was kind of like when I moved to Germany for the first time and had to start speaking German,” Adams jokes. And some, like speaking English all the time again, were entirely welcome. As Aaronson puts it, “Coming here and being able to walk into a grocery store and see labels that I actually know, and not taking three hours to find the food I need, it’s just awesome, really.”
Aaronson grew up in Medford, N.J., and is 20 months younger than Adams, a native of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., but they have been playing on the same fields together since they were 13 and 14 years old.
“I remember I was U-14 my first time playing against him,” Aaronson says. “I was 13 playing with the 14-year-olds, and he was playing down for the weekend. And I remember all the talk was like, ‘Oh my God, Tyler Adams is playing,’ all this stuff. So that’s the first memory I had with Tyler. I never really talked with him until I got in with the national team. We got close, and then here I think we’ve even gotten closer over the past three weeks.”
Like the Marsch family, both American players are living in Harrogate, a tony suburb of Leeds not far from the training ground. “We’re going to end up living 10 minutes from each other,” Adams says, “so we’ll be hanging out a lot, I’m sure.” What’s more, they note that their girlfriends, D’Ambra and Sarah Schmidt, both happen to be alums of Temple University.
While both players say they’re focusing on Leeds right now, they acknowledge that November’s World Cup is always in the back of their minds. And they do think that playing together at club level will help the national team.
“Building a bond game in and game out,” Aaronson calls it. “Especially because he’s a six and I’m more of a 10/inverted winger, maybe he just blindly knows that I’m going to be in the spot because we’re playing with each other so much. So I think that can only develop over time and get better, and then ultimately translate into the national team.”
Truth be told, it’s hard not to talk about the national team with any of these Americans, even Marsch. Every American at Leeds hopes the USMNT does well at the World Cup, which could lead to coach Gregg Berhalter being retained for the 2026 cycle and a home World Cup. But it’s also possible that U.S. Soccer could be looking to hire a new MNT coach in just six months. If that’s the case, Marsch would easily be the domestic-born candidate of choice for U.S. fans.
“That job, it’s massively attractive,” Marsch tells me. “Not now, and not six months from now. But I was in Salzburg 13 months ago, right? And lots happened. It feels like I’ve lived a lifetime in the last 13 months, so I would obviously never say no to the possibility of what it would mean to coach the national team. It’s just hard to picture where I’m at right now and that timeline for six months from now really fitting. Impossible.
“Gregg’s done a great job, and people don’t always want to recognize that, but no other coach in the history of the U.S. Soccer program has ever invested more in youth players and been braver to play youth players and give them the chance to fail and succeed and be rewarded for it. He’s not rewarded for it publicly by the fanbase, but I think internally they should all feel pretty good about the job that Gregg’s done and the preparation for what the potential of success for this World Cup is with an incredibly talented young group of players. You have to respect the work of people who do a good job, you have to appreciate what people are good at. And when they have success, it’s not random. So good for Gregg, and good for the U.S. team.”
What are the unknowns? When you’re coaching a Premier League team at the start of a long and pressure-packed season, what are the things you’re most curious about on the path that lies ahead?
“Every game has its own story, and the margin of error is razor, razor thin,” Marsch says. “And the unknown is you can have a good team, you can do everything right on the day, your team can be prepared, we can perform at a high level. But in this league at this level it doesn’t mean you win. I had a leaguewide managers meeting three days ago. You’re sitting in the room with the best coaches in the world, the geniuses of the game, and we’re tasked with not just competing against their experiences and minds, but their talent pools. And it’s a very loaded deck, and we know that, but our task isn’t to beat Man City or Liverpool every time we play them. Our task is to improve as a team, to be up for the challenge in close games against comparable opponents, to find a way to gain an edge and then step by step get better.
“If you ask me, What’s the best thing about the Prem? It’s that it demands the absolute best of you every day.”
More so than the Bundesliga?
“Oh yeah, way more.”
“Because the level is insane, the league is so good. And the attention that gets paid and the media involvement. I mean, it’s everything I do, from the way I handle interviews, to the way I show up in the training center, to how I engage the academy, to what are the tactics for matchday, to what is the training every day, to what is the video I show, to what are my interactions with the players.”
The media responsibilities of Premier League coaches really are a constant. They include press conferences before and after every game, obligations to rights-holders, flash interviews in the heat of the moment following the final whistle, big sit-downs with magazine writers and relationship-building with the media heavy-hitters whose companies’ billions make the Premier League the world’s most popular domestic soccer circuit. Marsch has built good relationships with prominent national media figures like former Liverpool star Jamie Carragher, who appreciates how forthcoming Marsch is when asked questions. But not every national media figure has hit it off with the American.
“The local media coverage, the people from Leeds that cover the team, have been very accepting of me,” Marsch says. “And I think one of the reasons they’re accepting is because they see the response of the team and the vibe that we have together, and so I think they recognize the fact that there’s a lot of positive feelings. But the overall English media is a lot different. They want to draw conclusions about me, and they want to find holes in why I’m not good enough, or why I can’t do it, or why I shouldn’t be here. But it’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. Who cares? Like, I don’t need their approval or their permission. They have a right to have an opinion on me. Go ahead.”
But don’t misconstrue what Marsch is saying here. There is not a place in the world he would prefer to be coaching in right now than here, in England, in the Premier League in 2022. His path to get here has been an unusual one, no doubt, but for Americans it is also a pioneering journey. And when he looks around at the league managers meeting and sees Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp and Antonio Conte and the 16 other coaches, he can take an immense satisfaction that he’s in the room. But he’s also well aware of what it will take to make sure he’s in that room a year from now, too.
“I think this is the best league in the world in the best sport in the world, and to be a part of it is an absolute privilege,” Marsch says. “It brings the best out of you every day. I love going to work every day with energy and knowing, f—k, we’ve got to be good. F—k, we’ve got to be good.”
This is the kind of long-form, in-depth writing we’ve grown to look forward to over the years. Thanks, Grant.
Grant, in-depth pieces like this are why I subscribe. Fantastic! Thanks for providing a view of soccer no one else can match.