bundesliga

American coaches Jesse Marsch and Pellegrino Matarazzo primed to make history

It might sound like the perfect script for a feel-good Hollywood movie, with two talented Americans making it to the top against all odds, yet that is very much the reality when Jesse Marsch's RB Leipzig host Pellegrino Matarazzo's VfB Stuttgart in the Matchday 2 opener on Friday, marking the first time ever that two American head coaches go head-to-head in the Bundesliga.

It will be a historic occasion, and one not lost on either of the tacticians.

"I hope that back home in the US it will also be a special day where two quality coaches have the chance to play against each other on a first league level," Marsch told bundesliga.com.

Matarazzo put it even more succinctly, telling Bild: “It's a special moment for American soccer."

So how did we get to this point? American players have long been drawn to the Bundesliga: from Andy Mate becoming the first in 1964/65 through to Landon Donovan and the more recent influx inspired by Christian Pulisic's success at Borussia Dortmund. But coaches? Not so much.

David Wagner - an eight-time USA international - became the first American head coach in Germany's top flight when he took charge of Schalke in 2019/20.

But unlike Wagner, who was born and raised in Germany and played in the Bundesliga for Eintracht and Schalke, and in Bundesliga 2 for Mainz, neither Marsch nor Matarazzo ever played at the highest level in Europe.

Indeed, both grew up in the States and have had to take a more circuitous route to get where they are now, arriving in the Bundesliga spotlight thanks to a combination of determination, perseverance and no little talent.

Watch: US Bundesliga Stars: A Golden Generation

Interestingly, their careers even intersected over 20 years ago. "Rino and I have a little bit of history," Marsch explained. "We played against each other at university in the US." He was studying history at Princeton, while Matarazzo majored in applied mathematics at Columbia University.

The pair's career paths subsequently took very different turns though. Marsch, an attack-minded midfielder, was drafted by DC United out of college and spent the next 14 years in the MLS, later enjoying spells at Chicago Fire and Chivas USA.

Now 47, he was mentored by Bob Bradley for the majority of his playing days, having had him as coach at Princeton and each of his stations as a pro. Then, it was perhaps no surprise that he followed Bradley into the dugout after hanging up his boots, even becoming his assistant with the US men's national team between 2010-2011.

Well and truly bitten by the coaching bug, the Wisconsin native emerged from under Bradley's wing to spread his own. Marsch had successful stints at Montreal Impact and the New York Red Bulls before Ralf Rangnick brought him to Germany as his assistant at Leipzig in 2018.

Jesse Marsch was assistant coach at RB Leipzig to Ralf Rangnick back in 2018. - Karina Hessland/Bongarts/Getty Images

"Don't look back, don't regret. Learn, go forward with power and with energy." That is the credo Marsch lives by and it has served him well, leading him to two Austrian Bundesliga titles as Red Bull Salzburg head coach between 2019 and 2021. His credentials well and truly established, Marsch joined Leipzig over the summer as a replacement for Bayern Munich-bound Julian Nagelsmann.

The Bayern supremo is another thread in the duo's interwoven stories; Matarazzo and Nagelsmann were room-mates while studying for their coaching badges, and the American was his assistant with the Hoffenheim first team in 2018/19 prior to joining Stuttgart.

To even get to that point though, Matarazzo had had to take a huge leap of faith straight out of university. Rejecting a job offer from an investment bank, he moved to Italy to pursue his dream of playing professional football in Europe.

He eventually ended up in Germany and first lined out for Eintracht Bad Kreuznach in 2000. After a few years of scrapping away below the top two divisions with various clubs - Matarazzo never played higher than Germany's third division - he joined Nuremberg's second team at the age of 28.

It was there, with thoughts of hanging up his boots emerging as he approached 30, that Matarazzo was able to dip his toe into the coaching waters.

"I was able to experience a very broad education [in Nuremberg]," he told Stuttgart club magazine Dunkelrot. "Whatever the task was, I wanted to do it - and I was allowed to as well. I was extremely curious and wanted to soak up any knowledge and experience that I could."

He quickly went from assistant coach of the Nuremberg reserves to first-team caretaker, then taking charge of the U17s and U19s before teaming up with Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim.

When Stuttgart offered him his first role as first-team head coach in December 2019, Matarazzo jumped at the chance. In third place and three points off the Bundesliga 2 summit when he took over, VfB earned automatic promotion as runners-up that same season.

Pellegrino Matarazzo was assistant coach to Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim before landing his first major head coach role at VfB Stuttgart. - Hasan Bratic/DeFodi.de/imago/DeFodi

Stuttgart's bold, attacking strategy not only won over many neutrals in their first campaign back in the Bundesliga, but it also earned them legions of new fans and a ninth-place finish.

All of which brings us to the present day. "He's done a very good job with Stuttgart," Marsch said of his compatriot. "He's worked his way up through academies and really earned it the hard way I believe. And as an American, I'm very proud of the success he has had."

That includes a swashbuckling 5-1 triumph over newly promoted Greuther Fürth last weekend, a result that has left VfB top of the standings ahead of Friday's fixture.

"We're very hungry," Matarazzo said, explaining his team's ongoing success. "This hunger, this feeling of drive and wanting to accomplish something is very, very important."

Watch: Stuttgart put five past Fürth on the opening weekend!

Marsch was rather more frustrated on Matchday 1 as his side lost 1-0 away to Mainz, leaving Die Roten Bullen needing a win on Friday to avoid falling off the pace at such an early stage of the campaign.

Not that Matarazzo will be doing his countryman any favours. "I'm looking forward to seeing Jesse," said the 43-year-old. "He's absolutely loved in the States and I know why. He's a super positive person.

"But regardless of what the opponent are called and the quality they have on the pitch, we want to win."

Jesse Marsch (l.) and club captain Willi Orban (r.) will be out to secure the first win of the season for RB Leipzig. - Roger Petzsche via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Picture Point LE

The same, naturally enough, goes for the man in the Leipzig hotseat: "I know it will be a competitive day on Matchday 2 when Leipzig meets Stuttgart. We'll certainly be focused on everything we can do to win that match."

Friday, then, will bring the duo's stars into alignment once again as they pen a new chapter for Americans in the Bundesliga. Far from being the climax to their story, though, their track records show that this weekend's historic meeting is only the beginning.