Jesse Marsch ’96 is not one of the most famous players in Major League Soccer, but over the last decade he has built one of the league’s most remarkable careers. The former collegiate All-American is one of only four players to have played in all 12 MLS seasons. When he left the Chicago Fire in 2006, he was the club’s all-time leader in games played (200), and as the current captain of Carson, Calif.-based Chivas USA, Marsch is still at the top of his profession.
“I didn’t have any long-term goals at first as much as I just wanted to see what the league was like, and I wanted to keep trying to play,” Marsch said of his start in pro soccer. “There were a lot of experienced guys at DC United [Marsch’s first team] who had been pros for a long time, and after about six months, I realized I could make a living at it.”
Marsch made only 15 appearances in his two years with DC United, but his playing career took off after he reunited with former Princeton coach Bob Bradley ’80 in Chicago, becoming a regular fixture on a team that would win the 1998 MLS Cup. The relationship with Bradley — now the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team — began in Marsch’s senior year at Racine Case High School in Racine, Wis., when Bradley came to recruit him. “My first impression of Bob was that he was different, in a good way,” Marsch said. “He cut through all the crap. He was honest and genuine and smart, and I could tell that right away. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to meet him at that age, and I feel lucky that I figured out back then that he was a good man.”
Marsch remained a standout midfielder for the Chicago Fire from 1998 through 2005. During that time, he considered going to business school or switching careers, but the idea did not last long. “Right about when I turned 28, I realized I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “There are those days when it’s raining a little bit and you wake up and go out there and start moving and the ball’s whizzing around. ... Those are perfect days, and I thought I would really miss that if I left.”
Having played in MLS from its beginning, Marsch enjoys an uncommon perspective on the league’s development. At first, he said, players simply were happy to be pros, staying in nice hotels, playing in big stadiums, and getting paid. But times have changed. “The last two years I’ve seen things I thought I’d never see,” Marsch said. “A new stadium in every city. David Beckham. TV contracts. We’re not far away from being a big-time league.”
Princeton may not produce many professional athletes, but Marsch believes his experience on campus has been a key to his success. While his relationship with Bradley has been central to his playing career, the values he learned as a student-athlete at Princeton have been as important, he said. “I think the greatest experience Princeton rewards you with is the opportunity to grow up with your peers in a small environment,” Marsch said. “I was humbled in a lot of different ways by Princeton, and those experiences shaped who I am today and how I conduct myself.”
Marsch, now 34 years old and married with three young children, knows that his playing days are numbered. But he intends to stay in the game as a coach. “I know opportunities will come my way,” he said.
Giles Morris ’97 is a reporter at the Rhinelander Daily News in Rhinelander, Wis., and writes fiction in his spare time.