When the men’s soccer team and its coaching staff took the practice field this preseason, the squad was joined by many new faces. The group, which added seven freshman players this off-season, also added assistant coach Jesse Marsch ’96 to the coaching staff. Marsch, who played college soccer as a midfielder at Princeton, went on to enjoy a long and storied MLS career in which he won three MLS championships and four U.S. Open Cup championships as a player. He then went on to become assistant coach of the U.S. men’s national team and later head coach of an MLS expansion franchise, the Montreal Impact.
For Marsch, what would eventually become an MLS All-Star soccer career began as simply one sport among many. Growing up in the Milwaukee suburb of Racine, Wis., Marsch played a variety of sports. He finally settled on soccer when he realized he had an uncanny talent for the game.
“I played a lot of different sports growing up, and soccer just kind of came naturally to me,” Marsch said. “In the beginning, I really just did it to be with my buddies and have a good time. But you know, as I started growing older, I could tell it was a gift that I had, so I just kept enjoying it and playing it and taking it further and further.”
Marsch took his love for the game all the way to the United States youth national program, which he played with for several years. It was during this period that Marsch was noticed by Bob Bradley ’80, who at the time served not only as the head coach at Princeton but also as a coach of various U.S. youth national teams. After coaching against Marsch’s team in several regional matchups, Bradley invited Marsch to campus.
“It was my senior year of high school when I first met him,” Marsch said. “When I came to visit, it was a wonderful university. I really liked it, got in, and it was pretty much a no-brainer that I was coming here.”
He enrolled in Princeton in the fall of 1992, beginning a Princeton career in which Marsch, a history major, worked diligently to balance his on-field commitments with his schoolwork. Admittedly, he sometimes had a difficult time finding the right combination. Marsch, who was named an All-America his senior year, had a lot on his plate throughout his time at Princeton.
“I actually wasn’t very good at balancing the work and the playing,” Marsch said. “I loved to play so much that I thought about practice and games so much, I probably could’ve done a better job of dedicating myself to my studies. But in the end, I had a really good experience here on both levels. I had a lot of great people helping me along on both ends. My full Princeton experience in terms of athletics and academics was very rewarding and developed me as a man and as a professional.”
Following Marsch’s senior year at Princeton, Bradley took an assistant coaching position with D.C. United in the MLS inaugural 1996 season and helped draft Marsch in the third round. Marsch played two seasons in Washington, helping his team to back-to-back MLS Cup championships and one U.S. Open Cup Championship. Marsch then followed Bradley, recruited as the head coach of the newly formed Fire, to Chicago in 1998. Emerging as a young leader of the new squad, Marsch led the Fire to the MLS Cup Championship and U.S. Open Cup Championship in 1998. He went on to play seven more seasons in Chicago, winning two more U.S. Open Cups, before following Bradley again to Chivas USA, where Marsch played his final three season from 2006-09. He also appeared in two games for the U.S. men’s national team.
“It is easy to remember the big moments of winning trophies, but for me, I always look back very fondly on the days of good training because that’s where the work of becoming a good team was solidified,” Marsch said.
In 2010, after his long career as an MLS player, Marsch embarked on a new journey as soccer coach, beginning as an assistant to Bradley on the national team. After two years with the squad, Marsch accepted the head coaching position for the MLS expansion franchise Montreal Impact in 2011.
“My experience in Montreal wasn’t the greatest,” Marsch said. “It was a very stressful and time-consuming job, setting up a brand-new franchise, and I didn’t get to spend as much time with my family as I would have liked.”
It was this desire to spend more time with his family that spurred him to make a bold decision: Marsch, who is married with three children, parted ways with Montreal in November 2012. He and his wife Kim, along with their kids, decided to embark on a whirlwind six-month backpacking adventure across the world.
“It seems crazy, but you’d be surprised how many families actually do it,” Marsch said. “It was just the right time. We had the time, we had friends all over the world to visit and we wanted to just spend quality time together as a family.”
The trip, which began in January 2013, started in Southeast Asia. The family spent two months exploring the region before visiting India and Nepal, then moving on to the Middle East. Marsch’s family, which was fascinated by Middle Eastern sights such as Petra in Jordan and the Old City of Jerusalem, particularly enjoyed spending time in Cairo with Bradley. Bradley has been in Egypt since taking the head coaching job for the Egyptian national team in 2011. The Marsches finished up their journey in Europe, before returning to America in time for Jesse to take a position as an assistant coach for the Princeton men’s team this fall. Although Marsch has only been coaching at Princeton for a few weeks, his presence has already had an enormous impact on the squad.
“I enjoyed watching him play as a professional and got to know him a little bit over the years,” head coach Jim Barlow ’91 said. “Jesse has been great to have on the staff. He knows the game at such a deep level and has the ability to watch and quickly notice things that need to improve, and he knows how to adjust training so that they do improve. He’s also passionate about every aspect of coaching, he loves to challenge and be challenged, he’s competitive and he’s fun to be around.”
Princeton’s players, including senior co-captains Billy McGuinness and Patrick O’Neil, have also acknowledged Marsch’s positive effect on the team.
“Coach Marsch is an intense guy, and you can tell just by being around him that he is a true competitor,” McGuinness said. “He brings a level of professionalism to the team that some of us haven’t been exposed to before, and he is extremely helpful giving instructions on the training field as well as analyzing game footage.”
This experience and passion was evident to O’Neil during his first few training sessions with Marsch.
“My first impression of Jesse was his fire for the game. He makes sure everyone is working hard all the time,” O’Neil said. “He is very responsive and offers good constructive criticism for our guys. As a senior, it’s not often I get constructive criticism from teammates or the coaches, but Jesse makes sure that I understand when I can be doing something better.”
Although Marsch has greatly enjoyed his time so far at Princeton, he is still ambitious. He would like to keep his options open but acknowledges that he is interested in returning to coaching professional soccer at some point. Barlow, like the rest of the Princeton squad and coaching staff, is confident that Marsch will flourish in his future wherever he goes.
“I see continued success in Jesse’s future, wherever he winds up,” Barlow said. “Sure, we’d love for him to stay at Princeton, but we understand he may have other goals, and we’re just grateful for whatever time we have with him on the staff.”
Marsch is excited to be back at Princeton as well.
“I’m so happy to be back here at Princeton, and I’m grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me this year,” Marsch said. “Ultimately, my focus here at Princeton is on the team. We’ve got such a talented and motivated group of guys, and they’re my biggest priority right now.”