I hear often from fans in the U.S. that they long for the day when “one of their own” gets a chance to coach a properly big club in one of Europe’s foremost leagues. Perhaps some can be excused for not being fully aware that they already have one.
Pellegrino Matarazzo and VfB Stuttgart fit each other like hand and glove, not least because both fall under the radar for anyone not paying full attention. Matarazzo is an Italian American from New Jersey. That he forged his own independent path as a young man playing lower-league football in Germany, far away from the domestic politics of U.S. Soccer or the goldfish bowl of Major League Soccer, shouldn’t make him less interesting. On the contrary, in fact.
Stuttgart — who take on Bayern Munich on Saturday (9:20 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) — will always rank among the most meaningful clubs in Germany, to me anyway, perhaps because in my formative years they were true high-flyers, winning the Meisterschale in 1984. They repeated the feat in 1992 and did it again under Armin Veh in 2007. Since then, only three clubs — Bayern, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund — have been crowned Bundesliga champions.
They draw a crowd, too. Even last season while languishing in the 2. Bundesliga, Stuttgart would regularly attract close to 50,000 at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. If that, in troubled times for the sport, is not a huge club, then I’m left to wonder what actually is.
I freely admit Stuttgart is one of the cities I really miss while stuck far away during this pandemic. The city on the Neckar river doesn’t usually qualify as a tourist magnet. Visitors are more likely to flock to the picturesque Black Forest towns and villages nearby, but there’s an earthy edge to the capital of Baden-Wuerttemberg that is hard to resist. This is pure Schwabenland, as the area is known, and the local dialect has its own characteristic charms as well as culinary specialties.
These past few seasons have been yo-yo years as Stuttgart, for all their appeal, have become quite the Fahrstuhlmannschaft (“elevator team”). Relegated in 2016, they came straight back up, and ditto for 2019, returning to the top flight at the first time of asking last summer.
The 2. Bundesliga is notoriously difficult to escape once you’re there. Just ask Hamburger SV, now in their third straight year in the second tier. That Stuttgart managed it was down to some good fortune in a tight race, but mostly to sound management. It starts at the top with Thomas Hitzlsperger, chairman of the board and head of sport. Yes, the same Thomas Hitzlsperger of Aston Villa, Stuttgart and Germany fame as a player.
Hitzlsperger works closely with another name with whom English football fans will be familiar, Sven Mislintat. After a rocky time of it as Arsenal‘s head of recruitment, Mislintat — who made a big name for himself as Dortmund’s highly successful chief scout — has landed in the right place as Stuttgart’s now-well-respected sporting director.
Flash back almost a year, and Hitzlsperger and Mislintat decided to dispense with the services of coach Tim Walter, who had been recruited from Kiel a few months earlier. Walter had a reputation for sound possession football, 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 much under Julian Nagelsmann.
The emphasis was to implement a newer style with better quick counters and effective transitional play with and without the ball, as well as a stronger, feistier mentality. Hitzlsperger and Mislintat were believers, even when results went awry immediately after the coronavirus pause in springtime. Back-to-back defeats at the hands of Wiesbaden and Kiel made many think another dismissal was on the cards. Instead, Matarazzo was handed an extended contract until 2022, not even dependent upon promotion.
Here we are, eight games into the new Bundesliga campaign and Stuttgart, under the American, find themselves eighth, unbeaten since an opening-day 3-2 defeat against southwest rivals Freiburg.
Saturday’s topsy-turvy 3-3 draw away to Matarazzo’s old club Hoffenheim (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) was typical of what we’ve seen from the Schwaben so far: confident phases of control and effective switches of play, pressure on the defence at times, but ultimately a steely resolve, which earned them a point with a late leveller from Marc-Oliver Kempf.
What I like most about Stuttgart’s composition is the emphasis on youth, but with an important smattering of seniority, using a back three as the building block. It has wobbled occasionally, but not alarmingly in front of the excellent and promising Gregor Kobel. The aforementioned Kempf has held things together amid a revolving cast around him.
There’s much to like about a multifaceted midfield featuring 19-year-old Tanguy Coulibaly and the more seasoned Japan international Wataru Endo, who has excelled. Experience and know-how comes from Gonzalo Castro and Daniel Didavi.
Congolese winger Silas Wamangituka, just 21, is a pacey, must-see player who can torment defences as well as score. Argentina striker Nicolas Gonzalez is the best of a very strong overall bunch, with a high skill level and a natural finishing capability. In truth, if they had to sell him, Stuttgart would get a tidy sum of money for Gonzalez. Unfortunately, he injured his left knee Saturday and will be unavailable for a few weeks as his teammates embark on a difficult run, facing Bayern and Dortmund in two of their next three matches.
So there you have it: an American coach at the heart of one of the great and unlikely success stories in any top European league. Even big clubs like Stuttgart have to work with limited budgets and the Schwaben have threaded a challenging needle. Matarazzo, together with Hitzlsperger, Mislintat and many others on the staff, has helped turn around the fortunes of this great German club as part of a huge and collaborative effort.
Had Matarrazzo played or coached in MLS, I sense he would receive more attention for his work from fans in his home country. That said, it’s never too late to start.