Back in February of 2008, a 47-year-old Adrian Heath signed on to become the manager of a new team in Texas called the Austin Aztex.
In the seven years since that time, the former Everton man has become a well respected manager in his new home of Orlando. That respect has been earned through four years of success with the USL version of Orlando City, and now that the team has taken the big step and joined MLS, "Inchy" is faced with the challenge of managing many young, talented players at the highest level of American soccer.
Many coaches in his position are not usually focused on the youth side of the team in their inaugural season. Rather, they try and put together a roster of veterans and proven players who can help immediately in the team. Heath decided early on to take the road less traveled, opting to plan for the club's future while still focusing on its current season.
Since his days back in Texas, Heath has seemingly been able to build up young players over the years into very good players who have moved on to bigger and better clubs. In the Aztex's first season, a young player from Cuba by the name of Yordany Alvarez made the team through an open tryout. Not speaking a word of English, he was taught the language by then president and owner Phil Rawlins, while Heath taught him how to become a better and more rounded soccer player on the field.
After the team moved to Orlando, Alvarez became MVP of the entire USL in their first year, leading the team to the regular season and postseason championship. Alvarez was sent on loan to MLS club Real Salt Lake for the remainder of their 2011 season and, after five games, they exercised the right to purchase the defensive midfielder and sign him on a three-year contract.
Another player that had a revitalization in their career was Kenyan midfielder Lawrence Olum. Playing two years under Heath, one in Austin and one in Orlando for a total of 42 games, Olum was able to impress the Sporting Kansas City coaches and earn tenure with the team that lasted three years, until he signed for Kedah FA in Malaysia just this year.
Mechack Jérôme, a Haitian player who joined the Aztex at 20 years of age, played under Heath for three years, two of them being with Orlando. After making 34 appearances for the Lions, he also garnered the attention of Sporting Kansas City and has spent the last two years playing for them. He most recently signed with new USL side, Charlotte Independence.
Finally, one of coach Heath's most recent and most well documented success stories is current Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer. The young Englishman came to Orlando on loan for the 2013 season after not being able to crack the lineup for SKC. A highly touted talent, having been picked 16th in the MLS SuperDraft, Heath knew just the right buttons to push to get Dwyer to show his full potential at the professional level.
After breaking the USL scoring record with 15 goals in 13 games, he was recalled back to KC where he helped lead the team to the MLS Cup. The next year, Dwyer took MLS by storm, scoring 22 goals in 33 games and becoming one of the top 10 strikers in MLS. Even asking him now about his time in Orlando, Dwyer never forgets to thank Heath for how he helped jump-start his career and get him to where his is today.
Now, with all the success that Heath has had with players, what does that mean for the young talent on Orlando's current roster? Well, in some cases, it may take time for these players to develop, maybe a year or two.
Many of these players, such as Bryan Rochez, Carlos Rivas and Cristian Higuita, are still adjusting to life stateside as well as having to live away from their families. Although Heath has had players in this situation before, he hasn't had so many of them at the same time. With Dwyer and Alvarez, he could focus on them a bit more and help them out, because he didn't have to worry about the other players on his roster too much.
With the club reaching the midpoint of the season in a few weeks, the key for Heath and these developing players is to do what is needed for the rest of the year, and put in a lot of work in the off-season and preseason next year.
By then, many of the younger talents on the roster will not only have a year under their belt, but they will also hopefully feel more comfortable in their situation living in Orlando. Although fans want to see these young players produce immediately, they must be patient with their development.
Heath's track record with developing players should be enough to put your mind at ease.