I often hear from fans in the US that they long for the day when “one of them” gets the chance to coach a really big club in one of Europe’s leading leagues. Perhaps some can be excused for not knowing for sure they already have one.
Pellegrino Matarazzo and VfB Stuttgart fit together like hand and glove, not least because both fall under the radar for anyone who is not careful. Matarazzo is an Italian-American from New Jersey. The fact that, as a young man who plays football in the lower league in Germany, he took his own independent path, far removed from the domestic politics of US football or the goldfish bowl of Major League Soccer, should not make him any less interesting. On the contrary.
Stuttgart – who will face Bayern Munich on Saturday (9:20 a.m. ET, streamed live on ESPN + in the US) – will always be one of the most important clubs in Germany for me anyway, maybe because they were real high-flyers in my founding years and they won Championship trophy 1984. They repeated the feat in 1992 and did it again in 2007 under Armin Veh. Since then, only three clubs – Bayern, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund – have been crowned Bundesliga champions.
They also attract a lot. Last season, too, Stuttgart regularly attracted almost 50,000 spectators in the Mercedes-Benz Arena in the 2nd Bundesliga. If it’s not a big club for the sport in difficult times, then I have to ask myself what actually is.
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I freely admit that Stuttgart is one of the cities that I really miss when stuck far away during this pandemic. The city on the Neckar is usually not a tourist magnet. Visitors are more likely to flock to the picturesque Black Forest towns and villages nearby, but the capital, Baden-Württemberg, has an earthy edge that is hard to resist. That is pure Swabiaas the area is called, and the local dialect has its own characteristic charm as well as culinary specialties.
The past seasons have been yo-yo years when Stuttgart became a real one despite all its attraction Elevator crew (“Elevator Team”). They relegated in 2016 and immediately returned, as did in 2019, returning to the top for the first time when they asked last summer.
Bundesliga 2 is notoriously hard to escape when you are there. Just ask Hamburger SV, which is now in the second division for the third year in a row. That Stuttgart made it was a stroke of luck in a close race, but above all a solid management. It starts at the top with Thomas Hitzlsperger, chairman of the board and sports director. Yes, the same Thomas Hitzlsperger from Aston Villa, Stuttgart and Germany is famous as a player.
Hitzlsperger is working closely with another name English soccer fans will be familiar with, Sven Mislintat. After a difficult time as recruiting manager at Arsenal, Mislintat, who has made a name for himself as an extremely successful boy scout in Dortmund, has landed in the right place as a respected sports director from Stuttgart.
Looking back almost a year, Hitzlsperger and Mislintat decided to forego the services of coach Tim Walter, who had been recruited from Kiel a few months earlier. Walter had a reputation for solid possession but something clinical was missing and there were doubts about the club’s ability to win promotion. Enter Matarazzo from the Hoffenheim coaching staff, where he had learned a lot under Julian Nagelsmann.
The focus was on implementing a newer style with better quick counterattacks and effective transition play with and without the ball, and a stronger, livelier mentality. Hitzlsperger and Mislintat were believers, even if the results went wrong immediately after the coronavirus break in spring. Two defeats against Wiesbaden and Kiel led many to believe that another layoff was in sight. Instead, Matarazzo received an extended contract until 2022 that wasn’t even dependent on a promotion.
Here we are, eight games in the new Bundesliga season, and Stuttgart among the Americans have been unbeaten since they lost 3-2 to south-western rivals Freiburg on the first day.
The upside-down 3: 3 draw on Saturday meets Matarazzo’s old club Hoffenheim (Stream the replay on ESPN + in the US.) was typical of what we saw of the Swabia So far: confident control phases and effective game changes, at times pressure on the defense, but ultimately a steely determination that earned them a point with a late leveler from Marc-Oliver Kempf.
What I like best about Stuttgart’s composition is the emphasis on youth, but with an important touch of seniority, using a back three as a building block. It shook occasionally, but not alarmingly, in front of the excellent and promising Gregor Kobel. The aforementioned Kempf kept things together in a spinning cast around him.
There’s a lot to like about a multi-faceted midfield with 19-year-old Tanguy Coulibaly and the more experienced Japanese international Wataru Endo, who excelled. Experience and know-how come from Gonzalo Castro and Daniel Didavi.
Congolese winger Silas Wamangituka (21) is a fast, indispensable player who can torment both defense and goal. The Argentine striker Nicolas Gonzalez is the best of a very strong group with a high level of skill and a natural finishing ability. In truth, if Stuttgart had to sell him, they would get a decent amount of money for Gonzalez. Unfortunately, he injured his left knee on Saturday and will be unavailable for a few weeks as his teammates take a difficult run, playing against Bayern and Dortmund in two of their next three games.
So there you have it: an American coach at the heart of one of the big and unlikely success stories in a top European league. Even large clubs like Stuttgart have to work with limited budgets and the Swabia have threaded a challenging needle. Matarazzo, together with Hitzlsperger, Mislintat and many other employees, helped improve the fate of this great German club as part of a great and joint effort.
If Matarrazzo had played or trained in MLS, I think he would get more attention for his work from fans in his home country. Still, it’s never too late to get started.