Matarazzo aiming to lead Stuttgart back to prominence in Germany
March 20, 2020
IN DECEMBER, VfB Stuttgart was sitting in third place of the 2.Bundesliga but decided to make a coaching change ahead of the second half of the season. The club made a move that surprised some of its supporters when it hired New Jersey native Pellegrino Matarazzo to lead the club in its quest to return to the Bundesliga.
For Matarazzo, 42, it was his first head coaching job at the first team level. Previously he had spent time as an assistant at Hoffenheim and at the youth levels at FC Nurnberg.
“I was quick to decide after the first meetings with the club bosses that I wanted to do this.” Matarazzo told ASN. “Stuttgart is a big European club with an extensive history, culture, and big fan base. But it's not just the club, it's also the people you work with. From the start, I felt a sense of similar values. It is not the first offer I had from a 2.Bundesliga club. It was just a very good fit with Stuttgart.”
So far, Stuttgart has been off to a strong start under Matarazzo with a record of four wins, two draws, and a loss in its first seven league games prior to play being suspended due to the COVID-19 virus. That has moved the club into second place – with the top two teams earning automatic promotion and the third-place team going to a playoff.
But the pressure to earn promotion to the Bundesliga is intense. While it is in the second tier, Stuttgart is one of Germany’s biggest 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. Last season it was relegated to the 2.Bundesliga and the expectations are for an immediate return.
For Matarazzo, the 2.Bundesliga is challenging because while the teams lack the overall finesse of the Bundesliga, every team is still smart with defending, closing down spaces, playing physically, and counter attacking. But there is an added difficulty for Stuttgart in that opponents are typically extra motivated when playing against a club of Stuttgart’s stature.
“Of course, I feel pressure, but it's the pressure that I put on myself,” Matarazzo explained. “I am somewhat of a perfectionist. I just want to get it right. When managing pressure among the players, it's important getting the team to understand that it's a process. We are allowed to make mistakes but it is always our reaction to those mistakes that counts. Also, we need to find a stable middle to the emotional ups and downs surrounding the club. That's a crucial element. If we keep the feeling present as to why we want to be promoted, it turns into more of a positive pressure and motivation than anything else.”
Born in New Jersey, Matarazzo grew up in the Garden State and attended Fair Lawn High School in his home town where he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a soccer player. He then had a successful collegiate career at Columbia University in New York City where he also studied math.
Following college, he had the opportunity to work for an investment bank but instead move to Europe to pursue a career in soccer. He thought he had a trial in Italy with Salernitana but it didn’t happen and he essentially lost a season. The following year he headed to Germany and made his way from there.
Matarazzo began playing with a fourth division club in Germany before moving to third division for most of the remainder of his career. Knee injuries ended up stunting his development and cutting it short. Following his final season as a player in 2010 with FC Nurnberg II, he remained at the club as an academy coach.
A pivotal moment for Matarazzo came in 2017 when he got the sense that he was no longer progressing at FC Nurnberg. He decided to take a step back with the hopes that it would offer him a clearer path forward. He left his job as the U-19 coach of Nurnberg to accept a job as the U-17 coach at Hoffenheim. It was a risky move that was also made more difficult because his wife and son had to stay behind in Nurnberg.
But it paid off massively. After a half season with Hoffenheim’s U-17 job, Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann promoted Matarazzo to an assistant coaching role with the first team. Matarazzo spent two years under Nagelsmann and had a lot of success – finishing fourth in the Bundesliga and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in club history.
“Julian is an exceptional coach," Matarazzo said of his relationship with Nagelsmann. "For several years we were opponents in the U-19s. We always felt the bond of respect with each other. When we found out that we were going to get our pro license together, we decided to share a room for the 10-month class. While working together we complemented each other well. We have similar thoughts on football. I'm very similar in my approach. We continued to have a good working relationship and a friendship. We're still in contact."
Now in his first year as a head coach, Matarazzo is eager to craft and implement his own style with Stuttgart. His style is one, he says, that has been shaped by a wide sphere of influences of mangers he’s worked with, played under, and studied over the decades.
“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 utilzation 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.”
American managers who were born and raised in the United States have had little success coaching in Europe but that has changed a little bit in recent years. Bob Bradley became the first American manager in the Premier League in 2016 although his tenure with Swansea City was brief. Jesse Marsch is in his first season leading Red Bull Salzburg and became the first American to manage in the Champions League last fall.
Marsch is familiar with Matarazzo and the two played against each other in college while Marsch was at Princeton and Matarazzo was at Columbia. The two also spoke last season when Hoffenheim played RB Leipzig, where Marsch was an assistant.
"Certainly, Pellegrino earned his way to Stuttgart," Marsch said. "As a player, he played in the lower leagues. He coached at academies at different levels. To get to the Hoffenheim first team as an assistant and ultimately be the head coach at a place like Stuttgart - where in Germany, is a club with a lot of history and pedigree. To give a three-year contract to a young American coach who is relatively unproven I think says a lot about the personality of Pellegrino. When you watch his team play this year and the success he's having, he clearly has an idea, a way of playing, and a way of leading that has proven to be very successful there, so far."
Now in his 20th year of living in Germany, Matarazzo is completely fluent in German and he is frequently referred to as Italian in the German media given his name.
“Do they realize I am American? Sometimes they forget,” Matarazzo said with a chuckle. “I speak German with a little bit of an accent. But every now and then when I start cursing or get emotional, most of that comes out in English [laughs]. So yeah, they know I am American.”
In the American media, Matarazzo’s story hasn’t received the publicity of Bradley or Marsch for their coaching tenures in Europe, although Matarazzo is at a club most would consider bigger. For Matarazzo, he says his family in the United States has been surprised about his lack of coverage but that he is fine with the anonymity – although he is still very much connected to New Jersey.
“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.”
While he returns home to the States as much as possible, Matarazzo has not been part of the American soccer scene since his final year at Columbia in 1999. That doesn’t mean, however, he hasn’t followed the progress of the game in the United States and his younger brother, Antonio, once played for the Red Bulls youth teams and Orlando City B.
Like many, he has been impressed with the progress of MLS and with the quality of young players gradually making their way to Europe.
“I do follow the development of football in the states,” Matarazzo said. “I noticed that MLS had some successful transfers in the last window. I see the development of players improving. Players coming overseas like Tyler Adams, Pulisic, Reyna are more prepared now. It most probably has to do with each MLS team having their own development academy and working better with the youth players. I sense the quality of coaching is also improving. All put together, if you have the better recruitment of talent, better youth development, better infrastructure, and better coaching at the top level, then it's just a matter of time until the league improves and you start producing better players.”
When asked, Matarazzo has always said he views coaching as a way of giving back – to players, his family, friends, and fans. He tends to avoid talking about his accomplishments and says he is submerged in the process.
But will that process ever take him back to the United States again to coach? Matarazzo pointed out that he is only now getting started with Stuttgart and in Europe. But at some point, if the right job were to come about, it might be something that interests him.
“I've always said that I want to go back at some point,” Matarazzo said about coaching in the United States. “I continue to keep the door open. There have been always two things to consider: number one, what's my potential progress here in Europe? Number two, could I hit the ground running in the states? That never coincided. There hasn't been a professional reason to go back to the states. Now is definitely not the time to go back. Hopefully, I'm just starting my career in Europe. But my family, my mom, dad, brothers, cousins, uncles - they're all in the states. At some point, it would be nice if I get the chance. It would be nice to give back - to give back to family, to friends, and to give back to American soccer. But it's hard to predict. Football is a very fast, moving business. We'll see what happens.
“I enjoy what I do,” he added. “I love competition. We always need to be aware of the jobs, the tasks, we take because they become our vehicles of self-realization. So the sense I have is that it's an opportunity for me to just progress as a human being.”