ASN Exclusive

Hurzeler outlines vision for St. Pauli as he takes over as head coach

Over the break in the 2.Bundesliga season, St. Pauli made a head coaching change and hired Fabian Hurzeler for the job. The hire was surprising as Hurzeler is yet to turn 30 and is now in charge of leading the club in a relegation battle. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with the Houston-born former U.S. U-20 midfielder on the job a his transition to coaching. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 17, 2023
11:00 AM

IN DECEMBER, ST PAULI decided to make a coaching change and tapped Fabian Hurzeler for the job. It was a surprising hire given Hurzeler had not had a head coaching job at this level and was still shy of his 30th birthday. But Hurzeler has been building up his coaching resume for most of the past decade and feels ready to take this job.

Born in Houston to German-Swiss parents, Hurzeler moved back to Germany with his family when he was two years old. It was there he developed as a player within the Bayern Munich academy. At the time, he was playing for the youth national teams of both Germany and the United States.

But shortly after he turned 20, Hurzeler made an early decision to transition to coaching. At first, he was coaching FC Pipinsried as a player/coach in the fifth and fourth tier. He then took assistant coaching jobs with Germany's U-20 and U-18 teams before moving to St. Pauli in 2020 where he was the assistant job.

Now, he will take control of St. Pauli as the first team head coach. His hire comes at a dangerous time for the club with just goal differential separating it from the relegation zone of the 2.Bundesliga.

This week, Hurzeler, 29, spoke with American Soccer Now about him getting this job, the challenges that await, and his career path which took him to this point.

 BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: Well, Congratulations on getting the head coaching job for St. Pauli. It's a big job at an important part of the season. Were you surprised? Discuss your initial emotions as you take your first steps in the job. 

Fabian Hurzeler: Of course, it's a big challenge. But I feel the trust from the club. I feel the honor of myself, of the players. It is also a huge responsibility. But I'm ready. And I think that my first weeks as a head coach, the staff and the whole team is doing pretty well. The players have been developing fast as they transfer the things we want onto the pitch. I'm pretty happy at the moment with how things are going.

ASN: And you know, it's rare to see someone under 30 years old getting a job like this. Did it surprise you?

Fabian Hurzeler: It's the decision of the club to make me the coach. If the club asked me and needed my help - of course I'll say yes. It's not about age. The media and the people outside are asking if it surprised me because I'm so young. I say in soccer, it's not important if you're young or old. It's important if you are good or not good. I try to develop a team, and it's a process we are going through. I have a clear philosophy and idea of how I want to play. There are key points I try to focus on. Of course, I'm a young person, but I think that I'm not a young coach. I have a lot of experience. I started when I was 21. So, I am now in my ninth year of coaching, and I have experienced soccer in different areas. For example, I started in the fourth division. Then I got to know the German Association and the U-20 teams. Then the next phase was as an assistant coach at St. Pauli and now the head coach, so it doesn't surprise me.

ASN: You said you have a clear philosophy on how you want to play and your ideas of what you want from a team. What are those? What are the hallmarks of what you want a team coached by you to look like?

Fabian Hurzeler: In former times as a player, I played with clubs that had a lot of ball possession. It's in my DNA where I want to have the ball because I'm sure if we have the ball we can act, and we don't have to react. I want to have possession and if my team is dominant with the ball, we will be going straight to the goal.

Of course, in the last two or three years, especially when I was assistant coach, I also developed my ideas against the ball. Especially in the second division, you must have an idea of how to press and also how to be able, in a defensive position without the ball, that you can lead the opponent to specific zones where you want to win the ball. And then out of these specific zones where you win the ball, do a transition immediately into an offensive position and try to score goals. So, it's a mix between having the ball and be dominant with the ball, try to act with the ball, try to find solutions.

The key point is that we have a good positioning. Positioning is very important for me and that all players on the pitch are active to keep the ball. And, like I said, against the ball, also to have the ability to stand deep and try to lead the opponent into specific zones, then try to create a numbers advantage in the zone, spreading the ball into offensive transition immediately.

And on top of that, especially in Germany, it's also about set pieces. It's very detailed also because I think as that set pieces can also be a game changer for us.

ASN: St. Pauli is in a tough position in the table. Only goal differential separates it from the relegation zone. In addition to tactics, it seems like a big part of your job could be dealing with the emotions and the team chemistry that come with being in such a spot.

Fabian Hurzeler: I'm not the coach to say, okay, we must win - because I think this won't work. On the one side, of course, it's the ability to play on the pitch. But on the other side, like you said, it's also a mental thing. My job, as well, is that we try to create more believers in the team. We don't need any doubters. I try to help the players to believe in their own ability, to believe that they have a lot of potential. They have a lot of potential and they know that.

ASN: And you made the transition from player to coach at a very early age at 21. Discuss the mindset and the factors that went into such at decision at that point of your career.

Fabian Hurzeler: My dream was, of course, to be a professional soccer player. And to be honest, I think I had the talent - but maybe not the head or not the not the body to do it. I was really honest to myself at these ages of about 20 or 21. I was thinking if I want to continue playing soccer in the third division or maybe second division. I was thinking: okay, what should I do with the rest of my life? And I tried to study other things, but after a few months for me it was clear that my passion will be in soccer.

I got an offer, I think I was 21 or 22 from a club into fifth division in Germany [FC Pipinsried] to be their coach. You do not get offers like that every day. It was a special offer. It was also a big challenge for me because it was the first team. When I met the players, just about every player was older than me. I tried to act with adults and not with youth players. So, I learned this personality really early. That was the start of my coaching career.

I'm still happy to be a coach because it's such a complex job. It's not only being on the pitch to create your own philosophy, it's also dealing with the media, trying to lead a team, and it's all about reflection -  trying to get to know yourself. There are so many areas you can develop over time. I try to develop in every area. It's important for a coach. I never say I am perfect in one thing. I try to develop over my whole life.

ASN: About 11 years ago when you were with Bayern Munich's academy, you played with the U.S. U-20 team. You had been playing with the German U-17 team before that. Do you recall those days of playing with the U.S. team and what it was like to connect with your birth country at that level?

Fabian Hurzeler: I remember it pretty well. It was in Florida. And for me as a young player moving from Germany to Florida, even if it's just for a few days, it was a big challenge because it was a new culture, getting to know new players and the team. I really liked that feeling. I felt really connected with the team and with the whole staff. I really liked how we trained and how the conditions of everything was there. I felt connected to that team and to the United States. In former times, I went there often for holidays. At the moment, I don't have the time to go there. But always when I'm there, I feel that the people are very open-minded, that it's a really nice culture… And I was born there, so there will always be a connection.

Brian: Do you follow American soccer at all? I know there's a lot of American players in Germany now and the U.S. just played at the World Cup. Do you follow the progress of soccer in the United States whether it be the national team, the Americans in Germany, or MLS?

Fabian: Of course. Just last summer, I visited the Philadelphia Union. I have known Ernst Tanner from former times when I was a player and he invited me. I visited and, there was an ex-player from St. Pauli there, Leon Flach.  I was there for three or four days. I met Jim Curtin who is an unbelievable coach. He is an unbelievably open-minded person with a great character. I have never met someone like him before. With Ernst and Jim, they showed me everything - how the style of play of Philadelphia was, how they trained. I really enjoyed that time. I also watch MLS. I watched the final between Los Angeles and Philadelphia and it was a really, really, good game. Very exciting to watch. With the World Cup, I think they played really well the first game in their system. I think there's a clear philosophy how they wanted to play. I saw the idea behind it. That's a great development with what soccer in the USA is doing at the moment. I really like to watch them. They have the conditions, and they have the ability to continue the process and develop and improve things. It will be very exciting to watch the future in the coming years from the United States.

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