“Where I’m from, kids don’t go to Princeton.” That was Jesse Marsch ’96’s first thought nearly three decades ago when he heard that Princeton soccer coach Bob Bradley ’80 had his eye on him at a youth tournament during his senior year of high school. Luckily for Marsch, he was wrong.
The relationship that started that day in 1991 led to the pair winning several Ivy League and Major League Soccer titles and paved the way for Marsch to join Bradley among an elite group of American soccer coaches who’ve been recruited to work in Europe.
Bradley sensed something special about Marsch when he first spotted him at the tournament, which was meant to help select players for the U.S. national team. Marsch, who hails from Racine, Wis., didn’t fit the mold of the average player. The skinny striker relied more on brains than brawn.
“I thought he had a way of playing and thinking that ... would fit with what we were doing at Princeton,” says Bradley, who also played for the University as a student.
For Marsch, whose parents never went to college, the idea of going to a place like Princeton was enticing, if a bit intimidating. But Bradley was the only coach to send Marsch a handwritten invitation to visit and the only one to pick him up at the airport.
Once on the team, Marsch soon discovered Bradley’s tough love. The coach never held back about what players needed to do to improve, which was difficult at first for Marsch, who was accustomed to being the best player on every team he joined.
“I remember thinking back then, ‘This guy is a jerk!’” says Marsch. “But over time I grew to love his feedback and yearn for him to critique me ... and I realized the more he challenged you, the more he believed in you.”
It was a productive partnership. At Princeton, Bradley and Marsch won two Ivy League championships and made it to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. During Marsch’s senior year, he was the Ivy League’s leading scorer with 16 goals and was named to the All-America team.
For most college coaches and players, graduation marks the end of the relationship. But for Bradley and Marsch, the four seasons at Princeton were a precursor of things to come.
Marsch’s graduation in 1996 coincided with the launch of Major League Soccer in the United States. Bradley, who was hired as D.C. United’s assistant coach, selected Marsch in the league’s first draft. After two seasons at D.C. United, Bradley became the head coach of the Chicago Fire and brought Marsch with him. Bradley did the same, years later, when he was named coach of Chivas USA in California.
During the eight years that Bradley and Marsch were together in MLS, they won the league and U.S. Open Cup multiple times. Marsch was not the biggest star on these teams, which featured European legends like Hristo Stoichkov, but he still played a critical role in their success.
“There are always guys who you say to yourself, ‘I’m pretty sure he’s going to continue, and he’s going to be a coach,’ and Jesse would be one of those guys,” says Bradley.
Ever the mentor, Bradley wanted to cultivate this coaching potential, too. In 2009, Bradley was the coach of the U.S. national team and invited Marsch to join his staff as they prepared for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Marsch seized the opportunity and eventually became head coach of the Montreal Impact and then the New York Red Bulls, with a stint as an assistant coach at Princeton in between. During his three and a half seasons with the Red Bulls, Marsch became the winningest coach in the club’s history.
“[Jesse] has a real idea of what he wants his teams to look like and how to get them to that point,” says Bradley.
Bradley made history in 2016 when he became the first American coach in England’s Premier League. The opportunity was short-lived, but he’s now coaching Los Angeles Football Club in MLS. Last year, Marsch became one of the few American coaches to make the jump to Europe himself when he was appointed assistant coach at RB Leipzig in Germany’s Bundesliga professional soccer league. Marsch thrived in Germany and is now slated to take over as the head coach of RB Salzburg in Austria next season.
“Bob was an inspiration for all of us American coaches,” says Marsch. “I don’t know if before Bob went that I ever thought I could go to Europe and coach.”
During his time at RB Leipzig, Marsch was impressed by how deeply the coaching staff thought about the game and the detail that went into preparing for every match. That experience could come in handy since there has been talk of Marsch one day becoming the U.S. national coach just like Bradley.
“Having been on the inside with Bob and the national team, I have a really good picture of what that team requires,” says Marsch.
Whatever the future holds, Marsch is not only grateful for the role Bradley has played in propelling his success in soccer, but also for how their relationship has evolved. “He was a mentor, then he was almost like a father, then he became my boss, and then he became my friend,” says Marsch.