Venezia wasn’t even sure what they were getting when they signed Tanner Tessmann from FC Dallas in 2021. The club’s general manager at the time, Alexander Menta, described the midfielder during an interview with Grant Wahl as “my big bet”. He admired Tessman’s size, athleticism and work ethic, but those traits are not the same as a junior soccer player. “Was it like a normal purchase when there were green lights all over the board? No,” said Meana. “And I told him the same thing.”
Tessmann had made his senior US men’s national team debut a few months earlier but would not represent them again until next September. The two and a half years in between were as winding as the canals that cut through the 126 islands of Venice. Now, however, he feels that he and his club may be finding their way out to the open water of the lagoon.
Venice were not supposed to reach the highest level of Italian soccer, Serie A, in 2021. They have not played in the final for two decades, and were only brought back from bankruptcy in Italy’s fourth tier by a consortium of investors American six years. before. After climbing two divisions in the shortest amount of time, Venezia were relegated from Serie B in 2019, only to find a post-season recovery when another club, Palermo, suffered a financial crisis of their own and were relegated to Serie C instead.
The club’s president during this period was Joe Tacopina, a New York lawyer turned serial Italian soccer investor who had previously been part of Roma and Bologna ownership groups. In 2020, it was bought out by fellow shareholder Duncan Niederauer.
A former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, Niederauer wanted to take Venezia in a different direction. He and Tacopina believed that the club had the potential to develop a global following because of its location in a unique city, which attracts millions of tourists every year. What could be more romantic, after all, than a football team whose stadium – the Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo – is easily reached by boat?
But they differed in their vision of what that would look like. After completing the 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 cold-called him after reading about the takeover, talking about his enthusiasm and knowledge of the field. His player recommendations helped turn the team from what was expected to be a relegation battle into one that finished fifth and won promotion to Serie A via the playoffs.
Tessmann and fellow American Gianluca Busio were signed in the following transfer window. Menta were recognized for their ability on the pitch, but of course, these moves were to increase the club’s international appeal.
Tacopina rebranded the club during his tenure as president, swapping out the winged lion on its crest for a more aggressive representation. “The old lion says, ‘Welcome our visitors, to our city; be safe,” Tacopina said at the time. “This lion says, ‘Get the fuck out or we’ll kill you.’
This was not the sale that Niederauer had in mind. He brought back Ted Philipakos to be the club’s Chief Brand Officer and Sonya Kondratenko as Media Director, two other Americans who had been part of the Venezia project in previous chapters.
Ahead of the club’s return to Serie A in 2021, they switched kit supplier from Nike to Kappa and collaborated to create a collection of four fashion kits. Among the striking designs was a black house jersey that recreated the trompe l’oeil Venetian wall texture, as seen on facades around the lagoon.
The marketing campaign accompanying its release sold Venezia less as a football club than a lifestyle brand. So did the opening of a new club store, a year later, which was designed to feel like a high-end fashion store, with only a handful of carefully curated items on display. From 2022, the club hired German design agency Bureau Borsche to develop the next set of kits, as well as a new stylized club crest. Esquire magazine labeled them Fashion FC.
This rebranding was very effective. Philipakos told Esquire that 96% of merchandise sales were coming from outside Italy. Success on the field was more difficult, however. Venice could not survive one season in Serie A, being relegated at the end of the 2021-22 campaign in last place.
It was a great experience for the two new American players. Busio, a player who made 65 appearances for Sporting Kansas City at age 19 and was part of the USMNT team that won the Gold Cup the summer he arrived, had higher expectations. He got off to a bright start, scoring in a draw against Cagliari, but fell back with his team as the season progressed.
Less was asked of Tessmann, who had only made a handful of appearances for FC Dallas in the year and a half before joining Venezia. He got just six Serie A starts, and was under-appreciated by new manager Ivan Javorčić after his team was sacked.
That chapter was mercifully short. Javorčić was sacked after a terrible 12 games in charge and replaced by Paolo Vanoli. The latter admired Tessmann’s physicality but still struggled to find him a home at first. Only after Mato Jajalo, signed from Udinese to serve as the team’s regista, tore his cruciate ligament in February of this year, that things began to fall together for the American.
Tessmann, who had previously struggled when asked to orchestrate play from midfield through, was drafted back into that position as an essential. Unexpectedly, he thrived, showing a poise and quality in possession that had been lacking before.
Vanoli attributed such improvement to good old-fashioned hard work on the training ground. “I always ask a lot of my players,” he said after watching Tessmann score in a stunning 3-2 win over Parma in October. “But you have to be prepared to wait for what you’re asking for.”
For a while, Busio seemed to be on the other side, no longer a guaranteed starter as Venezia managed to finish eighth last season in Serie B. But his form this campaign has been far better, starting 12 out of 13 games alongside Tessmann, mostly in a box-to-box role. “Gianluca has reached a new cycle,” Vanoli said in September. “He finally wants to be a footballer. Young players have to learn lessons and you have to be tough on them sometimes. I was quite small with him.”
Tessmann and Busio were called together this week to the US Men’s Olympic Soccer Team for a training camp in Spain. Still only 22 and 21 respectively, they have long careers ahead of them. Neither, however, seems in a hurry to leave one of the most extraordinary venues in European football.