NEven Venezia certainly knew what they were getting when they signed Tanner Tessmann from FC Dallas in 2021. The club’s then general manager, Alexander Menta, described the midfielder during a interview with Grant Wahl as “my big bet”. He liked Tessman’s size, athleticism and work ethic, but those traits alone don’t make him a top football player. “Was it like a normal purchase, where the light was green across the board? No,’ Menta said. “And I told him the same thing.”
Tessmann had made his debut for the US men’s senior team a few months earlier, but would not represent them again until September. The two and a half years in between have been as tortuous as the canals that cross Venice’s 126 islands. But now it feels like he and his club are making their way to the open waters of the lagoon.
Venezia was not supposed to reach the highest level of Italian football, Serie A, in 2021. They had not played in the top flight for 20 years and were only recovered from bankruptcy in Italy’s fourth tier by a consortium of American investors for six years. for. After climbing two divisions in the shortest amount of time, Venezia had been relegated from Serie B in 2019, but were given a reprieve after the season when another club, Palermo, suffered a financial crisis of their own and moved to Serie C instead.
The club’s president during this period was Joe Tacopina, a New York lawyer who became a serial Italian football investor and was previously part of ownership groups in Roma and Bologna. In 2020 he was bought out by fellow shareholder Duncan Niederauer.
Niederauer, former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, wanted to take Venezia in a different direction. He and Tacopina shared the belief that the club had the potential to develop a global fan base thanks to its location in a unique city, a place that attracts millions of tourists every year. After all, what could be more romantic than a football team whose stadium – the Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo – is easiest to reach by boat?
Yet they differed in their vision of what that would look like. After completing his takeover, Niederauer hired Menta, a 29-year-old Venezia fan from Pennsylvania who had never worked in soccer before, to head the club’s analytics department.
Menta had cold-called him after reading about the acquisition and had talked himself into an opportunity with his sheer enthusiasm and knowledge of the field. His player recommendations helped transform a team expected to fight relegation into one that instead finished fifth and won promotion to Serie A via the play-offs.
Tessmann and his compatriot Gianluca Busio were signed in the following transfer window. Menta identified them for their potential on the pitch, but these moves were obviously also linked to the club’s efforts to increase their international appeal.
Tacopina had rebranded the club during his time as president, ditching the winged lion on the crest for a more aggressive image. “The old lion says: ‘Welcome to our visitors, to our city; be safe,” Tacopina said at the time. “This lion says, ‘Get the fuck away or we’ll kill you.’”
This was not the sale Niederauer had in mind. He brought back Ted Philipakos as the club’s Chief Brand Officer and Sonya Kondratenko as media director, two more Americans who had been part of the Venezia project in the earlier chapters.
Before the club returned to Serie A in 2021, they swapped kit supplier from Nike to Kappa and collaborated to create a collection of four fashionable fits. The amazing designs include a black home shirt which mimicked a Venetian trompe l’oeil wall texture, as seen on facades around the lagoon.
The marketing campaign that accompanied the release sold Venezia less as a football club than as a lifestyle brand. So did the opening of a new club store a year later, designed to feel like a luxury fashion boutique, with just a handful of carefully curated items. From 2022, the club engaged German design agency Bureau Borsche to develop the next set of kits, as well as a new, stylized club badge. Esquire magazine she called Fashion FC.
This rebranding was very effective. Philipakos told Esquire that 96% of merchandise sales came from outside Italy. However, success on the field was more difficult to achieve. Venezia could not survive a single season in Serie A and were relegated in last place at the end of the 2021/22 season.
It was a cathartic experience for both of their new American players. Busio had higher expectations, a player who had made 65 appearances for Sporting Kansas City at the age of 19 and was part of the USMNT’s Gold Cup-winning squad the summer he arrived. He made a good start and scored in a draw against Cagliari, but faded away with his team as the season progressed.
Less was asked of Tessmann, who had played only a handful of games for FC Dallas in the year and a half before joining Venezia. He only got six Serie A starts and received little attention from new manager Ivan Javorčić following his team’s relegation.
That chapter was mercifully short. Javorčić was fired after twelve dismal games and was replaced by Paolo Vanoli. The latter appreciated Tessmann’s physicality, but initially still had difficulty finding him a home. It was only after Mato Jajalo, signed by Udinese to serve as the team’s regista, tore his ACL in February this year that things started to come together for the American.
Tessmann, who had previously struggled when asked to orchestrate play from the center of a midfield three, was forced to return to that position. Unexpectedly, he blossomed, showing a composure and quality in possession that had previously been lacking.
Vanoli explained this improvement as a result of old-fashioned hard work on the training pitch. “I always ask a lot of my players,” he said after watching Tessmann score in an impressive 3-2 win over Parma in October. “But you have to be willing to wait for what you ask for.”
For a while, Busio seemed to be on the opposite track and was no longer a guaranteed starter as Venezia rallied to finish eighth in Serie B last season. But his form this season was much better, starting twelve of thirteen matches alongside Tessmann. usually in a box-to-box role. “Gianluca has reached a new cycle,” Vanoli said in September. “He finally wants to become a footballer. Young players have to learn lessons and sometimes you have to be strict with them. I spent a lot of time with him.”
Tessmann and Busio were called up together to the U.S. Olympic men’s soccer team this week for a training camp in Spain. They are only 22 and 21 years old respectively and have a long career ahead of them. However, neither seems to be in a hurry to leave one of the most unusual circumstances in European football.