If it looked historic, that’s because it was: A jubilant English soccer crowd was literally singing the name of an American manager, Jesse Marsch, at the conclusion of a Premier League match.
An American player, Tyler Adams, paraded around the field draped in the Stars and Stripes, while another Yankee, Brenden Aaronson, was being interviewed about a wily first-half goal that propelled Marsch’s Leeds United squad to a 3-0 drubbing of powerhouse Chelsea.
The victory was Leeds’ first over Chelsea in 20 years, and it marked yet another milestone for the growing U.S. presence in the world game. And not just on the field, where Aaronson became the first U.S. player to score for an American manager in the history of the English Premier League.
Off the pitch, Leeds is 44% owned by 49ers Enterprises, the parent company of the NFL’s San Francisco franchise; Paraag Marathe, president of 49ers Enterprises, is vice chairman at Leeds. Majority owner Andrea Radrizzani holds 56% of the club, but 49ers Enterprises reportedly has an option to buy the Italian businessman’s stake. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the team Leeds beat, Chelsea, is owned by a group led by LA Lakers and Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly, who purchased the club in May for $3 billion.
Making Sunday’s Leeds lovefest all the more interesting is that 50 miles to the southwest, U.S. ownership faces a very different situation. The Glazer family, who’ve been in control of iconic Manchester United since 2005, are taking the full brunt of fan criticism for the team’s 0-2 start and a woeful outlook on the season. The club’s $4.65 billion valuation hasn’t saved them from the bottom of the Premier League table and tensions remain high. Just three-and-a-half months after fan rioting sparked by the Glazers’ decision to join the failed breakaway European Super League postponed a match, protests were planned ahead of Monday’s game against Liverpool.
So loathed are the Glazers right now that a noted Twitter prankster’s musings about buying the club spiked the team’s stock price—and set off a week of media speculation on the chances the team might get sold. (Verdict thus far: not bloody likely.)
Man United traditionalist fans have long decried the team’s profit-seeking under the Glazers’ watch. Criticism intensified as the formerly formidable Red Devils have slipped out of the UEFA Champions League, and rose to a fever pitch when the team was humiliated by tiny Brentford, 4-0, last week.
Great British griping over Yank ownership is nothing new, nor is respect for American investment, as evidenced by Liverpool fans’ general approval of Fenway Sports Group’s stewardship of the club—with the exception of the club’s own Super League flirtation. But the kind of adoration seen by Marsch and company is something novel.
Part of it has to do with Marsch’s success (and good fortune) last spring, when he took over a struggling squad in February and guided it out of relegation peril on the final day of the season.
The excitement can also be attributed to Marsch’s coaching system, which applies relentless defensive pressure, traps opponents deep in their own end, frustrates their attacking plans and forces turnovers. The tactics were epitomized by Aaronson’s goal, in which he harassed Chelsea goalkeeper Benjamin Mendy at full speed, dispossessed the keeper in front of the net, and tapped the ball in for a 1-0 lead as if he were scraping something off his shoe while sprinting to catch a bus.
Finally, the fan fervor is celebrating the club’s assembly of talent, which includes not only the signing of Aaronson, but of Adams, a tireless midfielder who seemed to stop every Chelsea threat on Sunday, and who played for Marsch at two of the manager’s previous stops: the New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Leipzig.
“It just goes to show people around the world that Americans can play football, too,” Aaronson said after the game.
Of course, three games in, all caveats about a long season apply. But on Sunday, in the eyes of the Brits, live at Leeds, the American kids were alright. So was their American manager, and even their American owners.
For anyone uncomfortable with that, there’s always Monday’s Man United match.