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Jesse Marsch and growing pains for American soccer coaching

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Is this just a feel good story for MLS or a new trend for American coaches?

New York Red Bulls v Sporting Kansas City Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

MLS got some big news to start the week: former New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch has been promoted to the new manager of FC Red Bull Salzburg, beginning next season. Of course, Marsch got his first job in MLS and after a challenging start with the Montreal Impact, took over a strong NY Red Bulls team from manager Mike Petke in 2015.

In two and a half seasons with New York, Marsch carried a 50% winning percentage in MLS, amassing a 76-45-30 record. In that time, his club won the Supporters’ Shield in 2015 and he left the team last season in the middle of the best regular season in MLS history when they again won the Shield, breaking the all-time MLS points record in the process. That earned him a job as an assistant with RB Leipzig and his next stop will be a team that is expected to win the Austrian Bundesliga while also having a shot to be in the Champions League. In four short years it is quite an upward trajectory.

As MLS gets better, American coaches aren’t keeping up

Marsch’s news also comes on the heels of MLS seeming to take a step forward in terms of being a serious soccer league and not just a place for former stars in Europe to get one last paycheck while overpaying national team players who can’t cut it in top leagues abroad. In the last year Miguel Almiron was sold to Newcastle United for a record transfer fee paid by the club and Alphonso Davies seemed to prove that the MLS academy system worked with his big money transfer to Bayern Munich.

It wasn’t just international players making transfer news – after coming back from Europe, Zack Steffen was transferred to Manchester City of all places and Tyler Adams went to Leipzig.

So, MLS is good now, at least it’s better than it was just three years ago. Players are going to Europe for high transfer fees and young potential stars are flocking to the league from South America while it still manages to attract the likes of Rooney and Zlatan.

But, in order for this to be a success for both MLS and US Soccer, there needs to be more than just Jesse Marsch in terms of coaches and more than just Adams and Steffen in terms of players. It seems like the players will keep moving abroad, whether they have the potential to start for the national team for a generation like Adams and Steffen do is another story, but that pipeline is starting to develop and pay dividends.

But where is the next Jesse Marsch? Taking a look around MLS, at the top in terms of American managers for now there’s Bob Bradley, who is benefiting from Carlos Vela making him look really good and Peter Vermes who is all together an excellent manager. Following are a list of managers who seem decent but dependent on having great players like Caleb Porter, Ben Olsen, Greg Vanney, and Brian Schmetzer. Then there are more or less middling skippers who have had mixed results, like Mike Petke and Jim Curtin. Luchi Gonzalez seems to have the makings of a good manager in MLS in his first year with FC Dallas, so we’ll see where he is on that list in time. Finally, there’s Brad Friedel. Jason Kreis washed out of his last two head coaching jobs before settling with the U-23s, Pablo Mastroeni was never that good of a manager and it’s doubtful he’ll be leading another MLS team soon.

A bright spot might be Gregg Berhalter. Say what you want about him, but he got as much as he possibly could have out of the talent that he did in Columbus, something that might catch up with Porter sooner rather than later, and something that will end up being an asset with the USMNT. All told, it seems doubtful that any of these managers will be moving to a top five league, much less a team playing in the Champions League, any time soon.

Meanwhile, if the promising American players in the league are going out, international managers are coming in. For a league that was long touted as being difficult to coach in for international managers unfamiliar with complex roster rules and all kinds of fake money, teams are sure hiring international coaches over the Pablo Mastroenis of the world. Recent managerial vacancies with Atlanta (twice), the Galaxy, Vancouver, San Jose (twice), both New Yorks, Colorado, and Orlando were filled by international managers while Cincinnati kept their international coach from USL.

A path forward or a road walked alone?

While Bradley is a noted American who has coached abroad, there haven’t been many others to follow his path. David Wagner, who only ever managed or played in Europe, was fired at Huddersfield, Steve Cherundolo was an assistant at Stuttgart before parting with the club, and Joe Enochs is managing at FSV Zwickau and is the reply hipsters make to any comment noting that there aren’t any Americans currently coaching in Europe.

Wherever the next Jesse Marsch is it won’t be easy for him to get here. It seems like there are fewer and fewer Americans who can compete for new managerial jobs in MLS to follow in his footsteps. While players are moving abroad and playing at a higher level, it’s hard to see where American managers will be getting those same opportunities if they are getting passed over by better coaches in MLS.

As is the case with so many problems that Americans face when it comes to soccer, MLS and US Soccer are a part of the problem. For the next generation of managers, it’s always been expensive to get US coaching licenses but they’re also oddly hard to get according to the MLS Players Union.

Where will the next Marsch come from? Will more American coaches be able to make the same jump internationally that Marsch did? If so, it means those challenges and costs aren’t that much of a barrier and that could be really good for US player development, MLS, and US Soccer. If not, his move just another one off that shows how far the United States has to go in order to compete as a top soccer nation.