Weekend Focus: Pellegrino Matarazzo makes history in Germany

Last weekend, American soccer history was made.

Pellegrino Matarazzo became the first head coach born and raised in the United States to win a game in the Bundesliga when his VfB Stuttgart team downed Mainz on the road by a comfortable 4-1 score.

With most of the talk in Americans abroad centered around young players such as Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest and Tyler Adams, who are all breaking through at big clubs, Matarazzo, 42, belongs in this mix in terms of impressive accomplishments.

Matarazzo was hired by Stuttgart during the 2019-20 2. Bundesliga winter break. At the time, Stuttgart was in third place but needed to make a coaching change to ensure promotion. The hiring of Matarazzo was viewed skeptically by some of the media and club supporters since it was his first coaching job at a first-team level.

Prior to Stuttgart, Matarazzo’s coaching history involved coaching at the youth levels in Germany – first at Nuremberg and then at Hoffenheim. It was at Hoffenhiem where he was promoted to being a first-team assistant under Julian Nagelsmann. The two were even roommates while the studied for their coaching licenses.

While he continues to have a friendship with Nagelsmann and the two have studied and worked together, Matarazzo insists that he has his own, unique coaching philosophy.

“The difference is mostly in the details,” Matarazzo said of his coaching philosophy. “I have a very pragmatic approach to the game. I like game-control in all phases of the game. For me, it's about finding solutions. And so that means we need to have a sense of variability -- but, of course, based on clear principles regarding creation of space, the utilization of space and numbers and changing speed. When we have numbers up, how do we wish to penetrate?  When is change of speed useful not only offensively but also defensively? Depending on the match and the opponent, it will always look a little different.”

Now at Stuttgart, Matarazzo has a chance to implement that vision. Thus far, he has been successful. Shortly after taking the job, he guided his team into the automatic promotional spots. After a brief struggle following the league’s restart from the COVID shutdown, Stuttgart had a very strong finish and secured automatic promotion with a second-place finish.

To start this season, Stuttgart opened up with a 3-2 loss to Freiburg despite out-shooting and out-possessing its opponents. It fell behind 3-0 on mistakes and counterattacks but rallied to cut the deficit to 3-2. It came close to equalizing multiple times but fell just sort.

Last weekend saw Stuttgart play well and cut out the mistakes it made in the opening game. While it fell behind to Mainz 1-0 early, it controlled the game from start to finish and the 4-1 win was a result that reflected the dominance from Matarazzo’s club.

On Saturday, Matarazzo and company will host a Bayer Leverkusen team that finished in fifth-place last season and has opened up 2020-21 with two draws against solid opponents -- RB Leipzig and Wolfsburg. It will be Matarazzo’s toughest challenge so far as Stuttgart’s head coach.

The initial goal for Stuttgart, as one of the newly promoted teams, is simply to survive in the Bundesliga and avoid an immediate relegation. But Stuttgart holds higher ambitions than mere survival because despite its struggles over the past eight years, it remains one of Germany’s biggest and most historical clubs. In the 34 seasons from 1977-78 and 2011-12, Stuttgart finished in the top 10 of the Bundesliga 29 times and were champions three times - most recently in 2006-07.

The history and demands of such a club make it all the more impressive that club management selected Matarazzo, in his first head coaching job, to help it attain its top goal – to return to prominence as one of the country’s elite clubs.

For an American to be leading the way at such a club is certainly an impressive story. Matarazzo’s background is similar to millions of Americans. He is the son of immigrants and grew up in the American middle class. He was born and raised in New Jersey and attended his local public school in Fair Lawn – where he is a member of the school’s hall of fame for his soccer accomplishments.

As a successful and hardworking student, he attended Columbia University where he majored in math and was on the school’s soccer team. It was in the Ivy League where he competed against Jesse Marsch and Bob Bradley-coached Princeton teams. As a young player, he even attended a clinic that was ran by Bradley.

He also showed a lot of bold decision making in his younger years. After graduating Columbia, he turned down a lucrative job offer in investment banking to pursue a career in Europe. His 10-year career, limited by injuries, saw him play in the third and fourth tiers in Germany. But he immediately turned to coaching where he worked hard to succeed, took risks, made connections, and it has brought him to the Bundesliga.

But now in his 20th year of living in Germany as a player and a coach, he still very much considers himself an American and his roots are still very strong with him as he begins his Bundesliga journey.

“I'm very grateful as to where I come from,” Matarazzo said. “I'm very grateful as to how I've been raised in the States -- my family, my friends, the atmosphere, the culture, my education have all formed me as to who I am. I also have Italian genes in me. My parents were from southern Italy. They moved to the United States, met each other in the States. I was the first generation born and raised in the United States. I'm Italian-American and I've been living in Germany for so long. I'm very grateful to have been exposed to all three different cultures. But my home is where my family is: in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The United States is a big part of who I am.”

On Saturday, a big opportunity awaits Matarazzo and a result over a very strong Leverkusen side could raise the expectations even higher for his Stuttgart team.

Yanks Abroad: Five games to follow ...
Saturday, Oct. 3
Chelsea (Christian Pulisic) vs. Crystal Palace 7:30 am. (Peacock)
Bor. Dortmund (Gio Reyna) vs. Freiburg 9:20 am. (ESPN+)
Sunday, Oct. 4
Manchester City (Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle) vs. Tottenham (Alex Morgan) 7:30 am. (NBC Digital)
Hammarby (Aron Johannson) vs. Djurgarden 8:30 am. (ESPN+)
Juventus (Weston McKennie) vs. Napoli 2:30 pm. (ESPN+)
Note: All times ET.
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