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Jesse Marsch remembers his introduction to European soccer like it was yesterday. He was 16 years old, competing in a school boys tournament in North West England, when his team had the chance to go see Liverpool play at Anfield, one of the sport’s most legendary cathedrals.
“We had seats way up high, but after the game I kind of wiggled my way down to the field level, scooped up some dirt and put it in my pocket and I kept it,” Marsch told Yahoo Sports over the phone from Austria, where he’ll become the first American to manage a UEFA Champions League match Tuesday when his Red Bull Salzburg hosts Belgian power Genk. “There is no way at that moment in my life I would’ve thought that I’m going to come back here and coach one day.”
Two weeks after Tuesday’s contest, he will. RB Salzburg — which the former New York Red Bulls boss took over this summer after one season as an assistant with Germany’s RB Leipzig — will travel to reigning European champion Liverpool for its second Champions League test.
It’s a daunting challenge. Yet things couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start for Marsch in his first head coaching job in Europe. The club is perfect through seven Austrian Bundesliga games, smashing the previous record of four for a new manager. Marsch’s team has scored a whopping 34 times and conceded just six, good for a plus-28 goal differential. (Second-place LASK is a plus-8.)
“The team is really talented, full of young players and energy and talent. I haven’t described it to anyone else this way but it’s like 20 versions of Tyler Adams,” Marsch said, referring to the 20-year-old RB Leipzig and U.S. men’s national team standout. “As good as we thought the squad was coming in to the season, they’ve continued to exceed our expectations and given us a chance to fulfill some big dreams this year.”
Those expectations include repeating as both domestic champs and Austrian Cup winners. The biggest dream of all, however, is the Champions League.
Salzburg is involved in the planet’s top club competition for the first time in 14 years, and Marsch insists that his ultimate goal is to hoist Europe’s most important trophy this spring, too.
“That sounds crazy,” Marsch said, “But that’s what my goal is, to do everything we can to give ourselves the best chance to win every single game that we play.”
However realistic that is, Tuesday’s opener is undeniably pivotal. Genk is by far the weakest of Salzburg’s three group stage foes (Italian side Napoli rounds out Group E) and the match is at home. Getting three points out the gates would provide some much-needed confidence ahead of that Oct. 2 visit to Merseyside.
“The first game is massive for us,” Marsch said. “If we can get the result, have a good performance, feel good about our group, then I think the optimism of what might be possible in Champions League is huge.
“The reverse is also true,” he continued. “If we struggle, then it makes the task so much more difficult. It’s not that the whole tournament hinges on this one game, but we’re certainly aware that we need a good result here.”
The schedule gets real after that, with the much-anticipated trip to Liverpool next.
“It’s going to be a really special moment for the club and for our guys, and for me too,” Marsch said. “To test ourselves against what I think is the best team in the world right now means that we will have to be at the absolute top of our game. And the matchup is tough because so many of the things that we are really good at, Liverpool is better.”
Like the Jurgen Klopp-led Reds, Napoli is also coached by one of the global game’s most decorated managers in Carlo Ancelotti. Marsch doesn’t know either man (he’s got German friends in common with Klopp and has only met Ancelotti in passing) but he’s excited to match wits against two Champions League winners that he’s long admired from afar.
“It’s going to be about preparing our team to play against two very talented, very smart, very prepared teams because their coaches are so good,” he said.
Still, Marsch and his players have a sense of what to expect against Europe’s elite. The club scheduled friendlies against Real Madrid and Chelsea during the preseason and showed progress. After losing 5-3 to the Blues (a match in which American Christian Pulisic scored twice), they shored things up defensively in a tight 1-0 defeat to Madrid.
“We learned in those games that the smallest details can make the biggest difference,” he said. “That will certainly be the case when we go to Anfield. We’ll have to be so good on that day, the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be. And that’s a daunting task but at the same time it’s a really exciting one.
“When you’re in this business for a long time,” Marsch added, “you grow to love the opportunity to test yourself at the absolute highest level.”
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