Jesse Marsch finds coaching redemption in Canada's Copa América run

It’s good to be Jesse Marsch right now. Earlier this week, he got to drop some passive quotes about the performance of the United States, a year or so after he was denied an opportunity to manage his home country. Then, in Arlington on Friday night, he led his own team to the Copa América semifinals. After a 1-1 draw in regulation, Canada defeated Venezuela 4-3 in penalties, earning a rematch against Argentina. They are the third Concacaf team to advance to the semifinals in their Copa América debut, following Mexico in 1993 and Honduras in 2001.

Both Canada and Venezuela played this match like they knew how important and rare the opportunity was. Both teams moved the ball with extreme verticality, quickly pushing it from one end of the pitch to the other. Venezuela played like there was a shot clock, attempting several long-range shots at the first opportunity; of their 16 shot attempts, only three were within eight meters of the goal, and none were worth more than 0.2 xG. Canada, meanwhile, continued a tournament-long issue, creating decent opportunities but sending them skyward. They attempted 16 shots worth 1.9 xG, but as they have all tournament, they struggled to finish. But Moïse Bombito, Ismaël Koné and stars Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies buried their penalty kicks in the shootout, and they’re advancing because of it.

The 2024 Copa América has served as both a status check and a learning experience for ambitious North American squads. Mexico’s dire performance, scoring one goal on the way to a group stage exit, was the latest step in an ongoing downfall for CONCACAF’s once shining light. The United States’ own group stage exit reinforced a sense of stagnation following an encouraging World Cup performance in 2022.

For Canada and Marsch, hired only in May, this result has enhanced optimism for what might lie on the horizon, but not a single second of this tournament has been easy. They were outshot, 36-24, in the group stage, and it took them until early in their fourth match of the tournament to score a goal while playing 11-versus-11. Jacob Shaffelburg scored in the 13th minute to give Canada the lead over Venezuela on Friday night.

Still, as the match passed the 60-minute mark, they were nearly undone by a combination of deception and perfect counter-attacking. Venezuelan goalkeeper Rafael Romo was caught out of position, and physically prevented a quick throw-in that could have taken advantage; the act wasn’t yellow-carded, however, and after a brief delay, Venezuela needed just two touches to turn a loose ball deep in their end into a tying goal.

Salomón Rondón caught goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau shockingly far away from his own goal and scored with a lob from 39 meters.

The momentum continued to sway back and forth, and Venezuela was never punished for particularly physical play in the box. (For the match, they were called for only seven fouls with no yellow cards.) But Canada continued to create better scoring opportunities and eventually held their nerve to win in penalties.

The chaos probably didn’t bother Marsch much. The former RB Salzburg, RB Leipzig and Leeds United manager is known for an up-tempo style, and Canada’s two wins in this tournament have now come in matches in which they had 104 (vs. Peru) and 117 (vs. Venezuela) possessions. (The tournament average: 85.0 possessions per match.) They’ve now averaged 94.0 possessions per match, second in the tournament to only Venezuela, and their direct speed (how quickly you’re moving the ball vertically in a given sequence) of 2.1 meters per second is easily the highest.

This is, of course, a style Marsch could be implementing with the United States men’s national team at the moment. He was turned down for the job last summer when the U.S. elected to re-hire Gregg Berhalter, and he didn’t hide his disappointment.

“I’m not going to go into it, but I wasn’t treated very well in the process,” Marsch told CBS’ “Call it What You Want” podcast. “And so, whatever man, that’s in the past now. […] It motivated me again to find the right people.”

Marsch was somewhere between candid and catty earlier this week, when he shared his thoughts on the struggles of the U.S. in the Copa América. “Obviously I’m paying attention to the U.S. men’s national team as I always do, and like you, I’m sad,” he told Fox.

“I’m disappointed with the performances, the lack of discipline.” His Canadian team lacked discipline at times on Friday night, too, but they got the job done. And their reward is a rematch with Argentina.

Canada fell 2-0 to the world champions in the opening match of the tournament; Marsch attempted to keep things contained with a pretty conservative 4-4-2 formation, but Argentina nearly doubled their shot attempts (19 to 10) and tripled their xG totals (3.0 to 1.2). David and Larin were limited to just one shot each, and while it took until the 88th minute for Argentina to officially put the match away with a second goal, the outcome wasn’t in doubt. Argentina played their most vulnerable game of the tournament in the quarterfinals, needing penalties to eke out a win over Ecuador, but Canada still have a mountain to climb.

Any hope of an upset will require something Canada haven’t been able to provide all tournament: good finishing. For the tournament, they have now attempted 40 shots worth a combined 5.9 xG, but they’ve scored only twice. David and Larin have combined to attempt 13 shots worth 2.5 xG but have scored just once, on David’s lightning-strike counter-attack against Peru, and the rest of the team has an even worse xG-to-actual-goals ratio. They had several opportunities to put Venezuela away before Rondón’s miracle goal. They’ll need some serious progression to the mean in this department because Argentina are very likely to create better overall opportunities.

Still, it’s been a magnificent couple of weeks for Marsch and the Canadian national team. In their first opportunity they did something Venezuela have done only once in 20 tries — reach a semifinal — and they didn’t have to play their absolute best ball to do it. Marsch’s team have bought into the style he wants to implement, and at worst, Canada will match the United States’ best Copa América performance. No matter how “disappointed” he might be about his home country’s recent performances, he’s probably not losing much sleep about it at the moment.

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