Monday, April 9, 2012

Marsch brings lessons of his mentor to MLS

Leander Schaerlaeckens of writes a great piece on the lessons that Jesse Marsch has drawn from his mentor, Bob Bradley, as he takes the helm of the Montreal Impact in their first season in Major League Soccer.

The first clue is Jesse Marsch's stoic stance along the sideline. He coaches actively but refuses to show emotion, neither when his expansion Montreal Impact twice go ahead away to the New York Red Bulls nor when their hosts run up the score to a 5-2 loss. At most, a barely visible pumped fist or two will poke out from the long sleeves of his overcoat to celebrate a goal or good defensive effort. After the game, Marsch strolls out onto the field, gazing at nothing, his hands resting on the hips of his suit.

"On the sidelines, I try to be a pillar of strength for our team," said Marsch, the Impact's first-year coach. "That if they look over at me there's no sense of panic or concern but it's just about how now we're pushing the game."

The resemblance to another coach who came up in Major League Soccer is uncanny. Marsch is in many ways the coaching progeny of former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, who now manages Egypt. They share a philosophy, a style and a tactical view. They even talk the same way. Slowly, inflecting for emphasis, pausing frequently to consider what to say next -- and what not to say -- often using the word "now" without referring to a specific space in time. For all the world, Marsch comes off like a young Bradley -- only with a great head of hair.

Little wonder. Marsch, a hardworking midfielder, played for Bradley in all of his four years at Princeton University. When he was drafted by D.C. United, Bradley had just become an assistant coach there. Bradley took over the Chicago Fire as head coach in 1998. Marsch followed. Bradley took charge of Chivas USA, his last MLS job, in 2006 and Marsch again came with him. When Bradley became head coach of the U.S., he handed Marsch his second (and ultimately final) cap. And after retiring as a player, Marsch spent a year and a half as Bradley's assistant with the national team, until the latter was fired last July. Of the first two decades of Marsch's career in soccer -- between college, MLS and coaching -- 14 years have overlapped with Bradley.

That Marsch would follow in Bradley's coaching footsteps seemed inevitable. Even when he was playing, he was really learning how to manage. "In all our team meetings he always put his word in," said Justin Braun, Marsch's teammate at Chivas and now a striker for him with the Impact. "You could always see it on the field and in the way he played. He had a very intelligent soccer mind, and that's one of the characteristics he needed to have as a coach."

Now that Marsch is officially a coach in title, too, his extended exposure to Bradley has inevitably caused considerable crosspollination. "They kind of have the same mentality as a coach," said Braun, who spent some time under Bradley at national team January camp. "They want the group to be hard to play against and tight defensively, and I think you can see that in the style of play Jesse is trying to have us play."

"I think it's only natural that Bob is a guy who's had a real influence on him," said Mike Sorber, who was also a national team assistant under Bradley and is now on Marsch's staff. "They have a good relationship."

That's perhaps underselling it a little. "He was always like a father figure to me in college and became a huge influence to the person I became," Marsch said of Bradley. "As time went on he went from being a father figure, to a coach, to my boss, to my friend, to co-workers. So much of what I am and what I do involves my relationship with Bob."

Marsch argues that the influence wasn't all one-way traffic, though, and that if he resembles Bradley, Bradley has come to resemble him, too. "In actuality we grew through this business together in a lot of ways," Marsch said. "Certain things he did became part of what I did, and certain things I did became a part of what he did. The way our team is now we put a lot of things and ideals in place that Bob and I share. It's a little of him and a little of me, I'd say."

Since Marsch has taken over the Impact, he's maintained a running dialogue with Bradley, regularly picking his brain via phone calls or text messages, whether seeking advice on building his team, putting together his roster or getting Bradley's assessment on recent performances. It isn't always straightforward, given that Bradley lives and works in Cairo, but if the elder Bradley can't watch an Impact game, his son Michael, who plays for Chievo Verona in Italy, will do it for him and tell his father what he thought.

There has been much to scrutinize during the Impact's short MLS existence. The Quebecois have started their inaugural season 0-4-1 with just three goals scored and 11 conceded. But that hasn't been for a lack of preparation. Marsch and his staff have put in endless hours, studying the quickest routes to relevance in MLS (a strong, experienced spine and defense sourced from within the league), poring over their expansion draft options and using it smartly to nab all sorts of assets by selecting players and trading them right back to their former teams. (The Impact promised the Los Angeles Galaxy not to select any of their players as part of the compensation package that brought over goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, just one example of Montreal's use of leverage in the offseason.) And Marsch has drilled his squad in the value of a good organization, defense and hounding, physical pressure on opponents. "He instills a toughness in you and a competitive spirit," midfielder Justin Mapp said.

Despite the rocky start, Marsch has been careful not to place the burden of expectations on his team, understanding the teething troubles of expansion teams. "I'm not a big believer in setting grandiose goals," he said. "I'm more about the process of the work every day and now what that means and now how we continue to push ourselves and add sophistication to the soccer ideas every day and now push each other with the mentality we have as a group every day. I believe if you get that part right that the byproduct of that is winning."

That's a word Marsch, like Bradley, uses a lot too: "process." He is cognizant that he is in the middle of one, and in the interim that means dealing with the losses that are inevitable with the Impact's neophyte status. "The frustrating part is now not being able to put it together to now get more points and more results," Marsch said. "From the beginning I knew it was a process and I knew it was important to have patience, but nobody has less patience for losing than me right now."

Still, he's having fun with his new career. "I really like it," Marsch said. "I knew that as a player I was OK but that I had major limitations and I hope as a coach I'm not as limited as I was as a player." In hopes of thriving, Marsch has immersed himself. He's taking three French lessons a week, moved his family to Montreal and enrolled his kids in a bilingual school. Like Bradley would, he has gone all in.

And while Marsch's mentor may have been controversial as U.S. coach, Bradley had a 92-63-28 record in MLS and won a championship with the expansion Chicago Fire in 1998. If Marsch can emulate him, the Impact is headed for better days.

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