Pellegrino Matarazzo is proving to be an American success story in Germany. The New Jersey native has made the step up from Julian Nagelsmann's assistant to successful head coach in his own right with VfB Stuttgart, and is now ready for the greatest challenge in football right now with a trip to Bayern Munich.
It's been a long journey for the 43-year-old, and that only started with his move from the USA to Germany in 2000, fresh from earning a degree in applied mathematics from Columbia University. The defender spent a decade in Germany's lower leagues before settling in the reserves at Nürnberg. He would later become the team's assistant coach under Rene Müller and Michael Wiesinger ahead of being put in charge of the club's U17s in 2012.
After only a year he was promoted to oversee the U19s - a position he held for four seasons. It was during that time that he completed his coaching licence at the Hennes Weisweiler Akademie and became close, even roommates, with Nagelsmann.
"We decided to share a room because we have always had a mutual respect for one another," Matarazzo said of the living arrangements. "His principles in the offensive and the way he structured them are very interesting. I learned a lot from the way he trained them on the pitch."
The pair went back to their respective clubs after completing the course, but in 2017 they were reunited at Hoffenheim when the American was named the club's new U17s coach. He officially took over on 1 July, which was the same day a certain Hansi Flick became Hoffenheim's managing director.
After only half a season in the job, Matarazzo was promoted to be Nagelsmann's assistant with the first team after Alfred Schreuder left for Ajax. Together, they guided TSG to their best-ever finish in 2017/18, beating Borussia Dortmund 3-1 on the final day to leapfrog them into third place and qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
After Nagelsmann left to take over at RB Leipzig in 2019, Matarazzo stayed on in his role as Schreuder returned as head coach. Word had got out about his work, though, and in December of that year he was appointed head coach at Stuttgart.
Club CEO Thomas Hitzlsperger said at the time that Matarazzo was brought in to ensure "short-term success… and to make sure the door to the first team remains open for young players."
He has delivered on both. The new coach ensured immediate promotion back to the Bundesliga for VfB while retaining a youthful look to the rebuilt side. While in Bundesliga 2, he handed debuts to five players, with the oldest being Sasa Kalajdzic at just 22 years and 10 months. Three were still teenagers.
In the top flight this season, the average age of all the players he's used is only 24.4 years, which makes Stuttgart the youngest team in the Bundesliga. And despite that green tinge to a squad coming into the league, they’ve performed far beyond most expectations and sit eighth - only four points off a potential European place.
Watch: Nagelsmann: “I’m happy Pellegrino Matarazzo’s working in the Bundesliga”
The club have been so impressed with his work that they agreed on a two-year contract extension in February. His captain and most experienced player, Gonzalo Castro, also spoke highly of the coach after the recent 2-0 win over regional rivals Hoffenheim.
"He knows how to find the right words at the right time, which is important with such a young team. He doesn't go overboard with tactics, he makes it simple for us," the 33-year-old said.
"We have a lot of young lads here who are still adapting to this level of football. Every player knows what to do with the ball at every moment - we're no longer impatient. He's put his faith in the young lads and is coaching them well."
Matarazzo has also found the ideal balance in his team and the preferred 3-4-2-1 formation. He uses three quick centre-backs also comfortable in possession, has the tireless Wataru Endo clearing up in front of them, the blistering pace of Silas Wamangituka on the right wing, the delivery of Borna Sosa on the left, and two playmakers off the giant Sasa Kalajdzic up front.
Still, Matarazzo isn't one to get excited about such play. Even after wins, he's known for keeping emotions in check, preferring instead to point out areas for improvement. Now he's got to prepare his side for the ultimate test as they visit Munich on Matchday 26.
Only one Stuttgart coach in the last decade, Tayfun Korkut, has done so much as avoid defeat to Bayern - and that came when the Bavarians had already wrapped up the title in 2017/18.
The promoted side came close in the reverse fixture this season. The game was far tighter than a 3-1 scoreline suggests. VfB took the lead with a scintillating break as Silas teed up Tanguy Coulibaly midway through the first half.
Watch: Highlights of Stuttgart’s last meeting with Bayern
And although Bayern fought back to earn a half-time lead, Silas constantly posed a threat to the champions, who struggled to contain him. Matarazzo had identified a weakness and knew he had the personnel to exploit it.
He also had a right to go into the game confident in his approach. It was only a touch over a year since the American assistant had helped Schreuder guide Hoffenheim to a famous 2-1 win in Munich, against the team that went on to win six trophies in the space of a few months.
"You need to prove your worth through content and quality," Matarazzo said recently. "There were no gifts being given to my person and I needed to earn every step of the way."
He has earned that and now has the chance to make history again, but this time with Stuttgart. Not only would it be the five-time German champions' 750th win in the Bundesliga, but Matarazzo's charges could also make a massive impact in the title race - and help out his old friend.
Bayern go into Matchday 26 four points clear of Nagelsmann's Leipzig in second. The top two then meet in the first game after the international break.
Winning the title may not be in Matarazzo's range just yet, but one of only two American-born coaches in Europe's top leagues could go a long way to helping determine the outcome in the Bundesliga's title race.