Jesse Marsch is back in New Jersey and has a chance to make history with Canada

Follow today’s Argentina vs Canada match live in the Copa America semi-final

In July 1994, Jesse Marsh traveled to the Meadowlands for the semi-finals of a major international tournament.

Marsch, then a student at nearby Princeton University, had a front-row seat in the upper deck of Giants Stadium to watch Italy and Bulgaria play in the World Cup. Roberto Baggio scored twice to lead the Azzurri to a 2-1 victory.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” Marsch wrote in The Athletics in 2022. “It was exciting, the opportunity to have that kind of football culture at home… It made us dream.”

Thirty years later, almost to the day, Marsch will be back at the Meadowlands for an international semi-final.

The venue is more modern, the new MetLife Stadium versus the now-demolished Giants Stadium, and Marsch’s outlook on the game will be a little different, too. He’ll be on the sidelines this time around as manager of Canada as his team looks to shock the world by beating reigning champions Argentina in the Copa America.

It’s a full-circle moment for Marsch, who, just weeks into his first head coaching job in international soccer, has the chance to make history. That he’s doing it in New Jersey, a U.S. state that was formative for him as a student and athlete at Princeton and as coach of the New York Red Bulls (Manhattan, and beyond that, the rest of New York City, is just across the Hudson River), is not lost on him.

“I was thinking more about Canada and making sure we were ready to play Argentina,” Marsch said Sunday after Canada’s practice at the Pingry School in the town of Basking Ridge (pictured above), a field a short drive west of the Meadowlands that was built in 1994 as a training facility for that Italian team. “But when we landed here (after playing Venezuela in Dallas in the quarterfinals) and we were driving down the road and sitting on the bus and I was looking at all the familiar places and all the people who had reached out to me, it reminded me how special this is, to be here at this moment.”

World Cup

Marsch watched from the upper deck as Baggio’s Italy beat Bulgaria in 1994 (Simon Bruty/Allsport)

It was here that Marsch first developed under then Princeton coach Bob Bradley, the future manager of the United States men’s national team, finishing as the Ivy League’s top scorer in 1994 and 1995. It was here, after a rocky start, that he won his first managerial trophy, the MLS Supporters’ Shield with the New York Red Bulls in 2015. It was also here that Marsch forged his own identity as a coach, a place that saw him progress to the Champions League as manager of Red Bull Salzburg and then to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga. This was followed by a stint as manager of Leeds United in the Premier League before taking the job with Canada in May.

Win or lose on Tuesday (early Wednesday UK time), Marsh’s start to life with Canada was special — and surprising. The Canadians came from a group containing Argentina, Chile and Peru before beating Venezuela on penalties in the quarter-finals. Now they get another shot at Lionel Messi and co, with a place in Sunday’s final on the line.

Marsch’s Canada are one win away from reaching the Copa America final (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Marsch said he was inspired by the Italy-Bulgaria match and the way the 1994 World Cup revived the sport in that country. This semifinal could have a similar effect in Canada, building momentum for the sport and behind the national team ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which Canada will co-host with the U.S. and Mexico.

“I said after the (Venezuela) game that we probably have to play a perfect game (against Argentina) and maybe even then it’s not enough,” Marsch said after Argentina beat Canada 2-0 in the tournament’s opening match less than three weeks ago. “We understand how good Argentina is, but we’re certainly not afraid. They’ve only lost twice in five years, Messi is the best player who ever played, but we believe we have a chance. And that’s how we’re preparing.”

Those who know Marsch best say they’re not surprised he’s already got Canada on this stage.

The bluestone patio in the backyard of Princeton basketball coach Mitch Henderson is a reminder of Marsch’s early years back in New Jersey.

Marsch’s first head coaching job in MLS with Montreal lasted just one season — he and the team parted ways by mutual consent — and the following year, he and his wife, Kim, pulled their three children out of school and traveled the world, staying in hostels in Hong Kong and Singapore as they toured Southeast Asia and visiting Bradley, who was then coaching Egypt’s national team.


March in Montreal in 2012 (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When they returned to the U.S., they settled back in Princeton, where Marsch took a job as an assistant coach at his alma mater under longtime coach Jim Barlow. Kim said it was important to return to Princeton, where they had friends who could help them figure out what came next.

“It was nice to have a support system because we were in the unknown,” Kim said Monday from the back of a cab after arriving from Italy to watch Canada play. “Jesse’s dream was to be a coach, and to be a good coach, and no jobs were coming. … It was nice to have people that we considered family in New Jersey.”

Marsch and Henderson had become close friends while the two were in Chicago — Marsch played for the Fire in MLS, Henderson coached at nearby Northwestern University — and their families quickly became close. At Princeton, they worked together on lawn projects and discussed coaching philosophies and experiences. They still have the same kinds of exchanges now, just with a few more years of wins and losses under their belts.

“As we get older, the human element comes out more (in their coaching),” Henderson said. “Rather than ‘Well, this is what we do. This is my style, this is what I do,’ it’s the interpersonal stuff.”

For Marsch, returning to Princeton seemed to bring back his playing days and fond memories there. Barlow said Marsch seemed committed to helping the team find similar joy in their collegiate playing days. After a loss to Dartmouth early in the Ivy League season in 2014, Barlow said Marsch told the team they would not lose another game. Princeton was 3-3-2 at the time — they would finish 11-3-3.

“Jesse is so strong-willed, when he said that, the guys said ‘OK,’ and we didn’t lose the rest of the season,” Barlow said. “When someone like Jesse says we’re not losing, we don’t lose. He has that kind of strong-willedness to make people believe in things, to make them believe in themselves and to come together.”

Barlow recalled Marsch crying at an end-of-season banquet because he had grown so attached to the team. Henderson remembers those years as formative for him and Marsch as they developed their coaching identities. Last year, when Princeton made a run to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament round of 16, Marsch was in the stands cheering on Henderson, and Henderson will be in MetLife Stadium tonight.

Marsch’s next coaching move to the New York Red Bulls, however, set him on a new path. Shortly after his appointment, he went abroad for meetings with the company’s sporting directors. Marsch described what followed as “an explosion in my brain. … From a tactical perspective, it was a revelation in my life.”

Sitting in business class on a flight back from Doha, Qatar, Marsch scribbled furiously on napkins and in notebooks, trying to capture all the ideas the meetings brought to mind. After a few hours of watching Marsch write, a glass of wine on the console next to his seat, Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis walked down the aisle of the plane to the man he had hired to lead the MLS club’s project.

“You’re killing me,” Marsch recalled Curtis saying. “I need to know what you’re thinking.”

“That will work,” Marsch replied.

Henderson said Marsch was “excited” when he got back to the States. Wife Kim recalled a dinner with assistant coach Denis Hamlett and his family during which Marsch turned over a child’s placemat in the pizza parlor where they were and began sketching out how the team would play.

USMNT midfielder Sacha Kljestan signed with Belgian top club Anderlecht after a few talks with Marsch. Tactics were never discussed. After his last game in Belgium, Kljestan boarded a plane the next morning, underwent a medical in New Jersey, and then boarded another plane to Orlando to join the team. The next morning, Marsch took him to his table for breakfast and a chat.

“He started drawing on a piece of paper how he wanted us to play,” Kljestan recalled. “I was like, ‘Woah, you want our wingers (fullbacks) to press that high up the pitch? Are you crazy?’ He said, ‘Trust me, it’s going to work, as long as everyone is involved.’ We were all involved from day one and had a really good team. In the beginning, everyone had questions, but we had a really good pre-season and the success of 2015 (when the Red Bulls won the MLS Supporters’ Shield, as the team with the best regular season record) is proof of everything.”

March in May 2018 at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now with Canada, Marsch’s style of play is being tested at the international level. He has pushed back against those who doubted it could work, given that coaches have less time to prepare with their teams. Instead, he argues that at clubs, particularly in the Premier League, the cracks in the way good teams play “are so thin that they’re almost impossible to break.” In international play, Marsch says, those cracks are wider because teams aren’t as entrenched in their systems and don’t have as much training time together.

“The way we play is not the most complex version of what I normally do with teams, but it’s enough to give us enough organization and identity for the players to understand how to execute and what their roles are and what the plan is,” Marsch said of Canada.

In any case, Kljestan is not surprised that it works so quickly.

He pointed to the makeup of Canada’s national team and the players who fit well into a more ruthless style of play, but for Kljestan, there’s another reason their team has been successful in this tournament. It goes back to the confidence Marsch has long had in himself, and the trust he’s built in his identity as a coach, not far from where his team will take the field on Tuesday.

“You see it with Canada, they’re all very proud to play for their national team and excited to try to move football forward with their country,” Kljestan said. “So it’s a tactical mix of what Jesse is trying to do, with what Jesse brings as an X-factor, which is his love and care for players and how players respond to him. It all comes together really well.”

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(Top photo: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)

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