By most accounts, Jesse Marsch was already a surrogate coach by the time his 14-year career in MLS had drawn to its glittering conclusion.
Refined by the Chicago Fire in that program’s heyday from 1998-2005, Marsch stood up as a unique tactically-inclined mind by the time he arrived at Chivas USA in 2006. The confluence of Marsch’s now-established ability as a staunch midfielder able to read games and then-Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley’s sharp tactical acumen stirred something in Marsch. The fact that both Bradley and Marsch had ties going back to the Chicago Fire and Princeton University in the mid-1990’s, when both were cutting their teeth, only helped.
So that Marsch has immediately become one of MLS’s tactical ideologues is hardly a surprise considering his background. In 2012, his first season as a Head Coach in MLS came to a close reportedly not because of poor work, but because of ideological differences with the Montreal Impact. When Marsch landed the head job previously occupied by Mike Petke with the New York Red Bulls, he’d finally found a place to fully implement his techniques. With club legend Thierry Henry and striker Tim Cahill both on the way out, Marsch had something approaching a blank slate.
The results have been stirring. Headed into the Red Bulls’ visit to CenturyLink Field on Sunday to face a surging Sounders FC side, Marsch’s charges have 17 points from 11 matches and can top the Eastern Conference with wins in their next two.
For Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid, who’s watched him develop as both a player and a coach, Marsch’s progression isn’t all that surprising.
“He was always the kind of player that talked a lot on the field, demanded a lot of the teammates that got by on his hard work and dedication,” Schmid said. “I think all that has translated in his coaching. He still works hard. He’s still very dedicated, he still has strong opinions. Those are things that’ve made him be able to do well on the coaching side.”
Sounders FC assistant coach Ante Razov knows that better than anyone. All told, Razov and Marsch played together for eight years between two different clubs. Remarkably, the two arrived in Chicago at the same time in 1998, and eight years later they arrived at Chivas USA around roughly the same time. Razov sandwiched a time in Spain around two stints with the Fire, and the two played together with the now defunct Chivas USA from 2006-2009. The pair won an MLS Cup and two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups together in Chicago, and they presided over Chivas USA’s final run of respectability until that franchise fell off toward the end of its lifespan.
On Sunday, Razov and Marsch will face each other on opposite sidelines for the first time. Weird feeling? Maybe. But Razov also knows Marsch had been working toward this since he’d been strapping on cleats.
“In the Chicago days we had a very good team, some championship teams,” Razov said. “Jesse was a very good role player and almost like an extension of the coach on the field [in Chicago]. At Chivas he was much more of a leader. Towards the end as we pushed, we had some good teams, some good times there, and you could see his coaching mentality develop towards the end with Chivas.”
That mentality, it turns out, isn’t all that different from the one Sounders FC currently espouse. The Red Bulls and Sounders FC are the top two teams in the league in share of possession per game, and while Seattle easily tops MLS in accurate short passes per game with 370, the Red Bulls aren’t far behind in fifth with 328. As an extension, nobody in MLS tries fewer long balls than the Red Bulls, who hardly ever go over the top in lieu of funneling possession through its armada of ball control midfielders.
Part of that is Marsch’s unerring insistence on playing through his quality midfield. As Schmid noted, Marsch is nothing if not strong-willed. Since joining the team from Anderlecht in the offseason, Sacha Kljestan’s been one of the league’s best tempo-controlling midfielders, and Felipe has done quality work higher upfield. His 2.9 key passes per game - that is, passes leading to a shot - is third in MLS.
That should lead to a quality match largely played along the ground on Sunday. As far as total passes are concerned, the two teams combined have five of the top 10 players in the league.
The numbers are even more stark on an average basis. Sounders FC and the Red Bulls combined have four of the league’s top five passers as measured by average passes per match. Gonzalo Pineda, Dax McCarty, Osvaldo Alonso and Kljestan all produce at least 58.5 passes per game. With McCarty providing the house’s foundation as the holder, Kljestan and Felipe, who’s not far behind with 55 passes per game, are freer to create more going forward.
So if Sounders FC wants a road map as to how the Red Bulls might go about playing on Sunday, they could do worse than looking in the mirror.
“I think Jesse’s a hard-working coach,” Schmid said. “He believes strongly in his system and the way he wants to play. He’s implementing that. He’s got to a large degree a younger group than Mike Petke had to work with. They improved themselves in midfield with the additions of Sacha Kljestan and Felipe. Felipe’s a player he’s worked with before and Sacha’s a player he knows because he played with him. So I think that familiarity has really helped him implement what he wants to do.”
So as Razov and Marsch prepare to face each other down for the first time, Razov’s sure there will be some bragging rights on the line. And maybe even something else, too.
“Yeah,” Razov mused, “I’m sure loser will have to buy a beer.”