Jesse Marsch is back in New Jersey and has a chance to make history with Canada


Thirty years ago, Jesse Marsch headed to the Meadowlands for the semifinal of a major international tournament.

Then a Princeton student, Marsch sat in a front-row seat in the upper deck to watch Italy and Bulgaria in a World Cup semifinal. Roberto Baggio scored twice to lead the Azzurri to a 2-1 win.

“It was eye-opening for me,” Marsch wrote in The Athletic in 2022. “It was exciting, the possibility of having that kind of soccer culture back home… It made us dream.”

Three decades later, nearly to the day, Marsch will be back in the Meadowlands for an international tournament semifinal. The venue is more modern, the new MetLife Stadium versus the old Giants Stadium, and Marsch’s view will be a bit different, too. He’ll be standing on the sideline as the manager of Canada as his team looks to shock the world by upsetting Argentina in Copa America.

It’s a full-circle moment for Marsch who, just a few weeks into his first head coaching job in international soccer, has a chance to make history. That he’s doing it back in New Jersey, a place that was formative for him both as a student and athlete at Princeton and as coach of the New York Red Bulls, is not lost on him.

“I was more just thinking about Canada and making sure we’re ready to play against Argentina,” Marsch said on Sunday after Canada’s training at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge (see top image), a field that was built as a training site for Baggio’s Italy team in 1994. “But then when we landed here and we started driving down the road and in the bus and I looked at all the familiar sights and then all the people that have reached out to me, it does remind me about how special this is, to be here in this moment.”


Marsch watched Baggio’s Italy win at Meadowlands in 1994 (Simon Bruty/Allsport)

It was here that Marsch first developed under then-Princeton coach Bob Bradley, the future United States men’s national team manager, finishing as the Ivy League’s top goal scorer in 1994 and 1995. It was here where he won his first trophy as a manager, the Supporters’ Shield with the New York Red Bulls in 2015. It was also here where Marsch forged his own identity as a coach; a place that set him on a path to the Champions League as coach of Red Bull Salzburg and then to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga. After that came a spell in charge of Leeds United in the Premier League before he took on the Canada job in May.

Win or lose on Tuesday, Marsch’s start with Canada has been special — and surprising. The Canadians emerged from a group that included Argentina, Chile and Peru before downing Venezuela in penalties in the quarterfinals. Now they’ll get another shot at Lionel Messi and Argentina with a berth in the final on the line.

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Marsch’s Canada are one win away from the Copa America final (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Just as Marsch said he was inspired by that Italy-Bulgaria game and how the 1994 World Cup breathed life into the sport in this country, Tuesday’s game might have a similar effect back in Canada, building momentum for the sport and behind the national team ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which Canada will co-host with the U.S. and Mexico.

“I said after the (Venezuela) match that we probably have to play a perfect match (against Argentina) and maybe even then it’s not enough,” Marsch said. “We understand how good Argentina is, but we’re certainly not afraid. They’ve only lost twice in five years, Messi is the best player to ever play the game, but we believe we have a chance. And that’s the way we’re preparing ourselves.”

Those who know Marsch best say they are not surprised that he has Canada on this stage already.

The bluestone patio in Princeton basketball coach Mitch Henderson’s backyard is a reminder of Marsch’s first years back in New Jersey.

Marsch’s first head coaching job in MLS with Montreal had lasted just one season — he and the team parted by mutual consent — and over the next year he and his wife, Kim, took their three kids out of school and traveled around the world. They slept in hostels in Hong Kong and Singapore, moved through south-east Asia and visited Bradley, who was coaching Egypt’s national team.

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Marsch at Montreal in 2012 (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When they returned to the U.S., they settled back in Princeton, where Marsch took an assistant coaching job at his Alma mater under longtime coach Jim Barlow. Kim Marsch said it was important to come back to Princeton, where they had friends that could help root them as they figured out what came next.

“It was nice to have a support system, because we were kind of in the unknown,” Kim Marsch said on Monday from the back of a cab after landing from Italy to watch Canada play. “Jesse’s dream was to be a coach and to be a good one, and there weren’t any jobs coming. … It was good to have people we considered family in New Jersey.”

Jesse Marsch and Henderson had become good friends when the two were in Chicago — Marsch playing for the Fire, Henderson coaching at Northwestern — and their families quickly became close. In Princeton, they’d work on lawn projects with each other and discuss coaching philosophies and experiences. They still have the same types of exchanges now, only with a few more years of wins and losses behind them.

“As we’ve grown now, the human element comes up more,” Henderson said. “Instead of ‘Well, we do this, this is my style, this is what I’m doing,’ it’s the interpersonal stuff.”

For Marsch, returning to Princeton seemed to connect him back to his playing days and happy memories there. Barlow said Marsch seemed committed to helping the team find similar joy in their college playing days. After a loss to Darmouth at the start of the Ivy League season in 2014, Barlow said Marsch told the team they wouldn’t lose another game. Princeton was 3-3-2 at the time — they would finish 11-3-3.

“Jesse is so strong-willed, when he said that the guys were like, ‘OK,’ and we didn’t lose the rest of the season,” Barlow said. “If someone like Jesse says we’re not losing, we’re not losing. He has that kind of powerful will to get people to believe in things, to get them to believe in themselves and to come together.”

Barlow recalled Marsch crying at a season-ending banquet because he had become so attached to the team. Henderson remembers those years as formative for both he and Marsch as they developed their coaching identities. Last year, as Princeton made a run to become the fourth 15-seed to reach the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Sweet 16, Marsch was in the stands cheering Henderson on, and Henderson will be at the Meadowlands on Tuesday.

Marsch’s next coaching move to the New York Red Bulls, however, set him on a new path. Shortly after being hired, he went overseas for meetings with the company’s sporting leaders. Marsch described what followed as “an explosion in my brain. … From a tactical perspective it was an epiphany in my life.”

Marsch sat in business class on a flight home from Doha, Qatar, scribbling furiously on napkins and in notebooks trying to get down all the ideas that the meetings inspired in him. After a few hours of watching Marsch writing, a glass of wine on the console next to his seat, RBNY sporting director Ali Curtis walked down the aisle of the plane to the man he hired to direct the RBNY project.

“You’re killing me,” Marsch recalled Curtis saying. “I’ve got to know what you’re thinking.”

“This is going to work,” Marsch said.

Henderson said Marsch was “buzzing” upon his return. Kim Marsch recalled a dinner with assistant coach Denis Hamlett and his family in which Marsch turned over a kid’s placemat at the pizza place and started sketching out how the team would play.

Sacha Kljestan signed with New York from Anderlecht after a few conversations with Marsch. Tactics were never discussed. After his last game in Belgium, Kljestan boarded a flight the next morning, took a physical in New Jersey and then boarded another flight to Orlando to join up with the team. The next morning, Marsch brought him over to his table to have breakfast and talk.

“He started to draw out on a piece of paper how he wanted us to play,” Kljestan recalled. “I was like, ‘Woah, you want our outside backs to press that high up the field? Are you crazy?’ He said, ‘Trust me, it’s going to work as long as everybody buys in.’ We all bought in from day one and had a very good team. At first everybody had their questions, but we had a really good pre-season and the success of 2015 (when RBNY won the MLS Supporters’ Shield) is proof of everything.”

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Marsch win May 2018 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now with Canada, Marsch’s style of play is being tested at international level. He has pushed back on those who doubted it could work, given coaches have less time to prepare with their teams. Instead, he argues that at club level, especially in the Premier League, the cracks in the way good teams play “are so thin that they’re almost impossible to get through.” At the international level, Marsch says, those cracks are bigger because teams aren’t as ingrained in their systems.

“The way that we’re playing it’s not the most complex version of what I normally do with teams, but it’s enough to give us enough organization and enough identity for the players to understand how to execute it and what their roles are and what the plan is,” Marsch said of Canada.

Kljestan, for one, isn’t surprised to see it work so quickly. He pointed to the make-up of Canada’s national team pool and the players who fit well into a more relentless style of play but, for Kljestan, there is another reason why Canada has been successful. It goes back to the confidence Marsch has long had in himself, and the confidence he built in his identity as a coach not far from where his team will take the field at MetLife on Tuesday.

“You can see with Canada, they are all very proud to play for their national team and excited to try to move soccer forward with their country,” Kljestan said. “So it’s a mix tactically of what Jesse is trying to do, with what Jesse brings as an X-factor, which is his love and care for players and how players respond to him. It all comes together really really well.”

(Top photo: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)





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