Orlando City’s recent decision to "amicably part ways" with longtime Head Coach Adrian Heath has shaken a sizable chunk of the club’s fan base to its core.
While there were many fans out there that wanted to see the club make a change at the head coaching position, the reasons to fire Heath — at least on the surface — were few and far.
Maybe there was tension building in the locker room, but we may never know that. Maybe patience from ownership, namely majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva, had finally run out.
But the fact remains, while the club claims the results weren’t good enough for "this roster," there’s no fair way of backing that up completely.
No team in the Eastern Conference had lost fewer games than Heath’s Orlando City, which stood with just four losses in his 16 games (the Montreal Impact also had just four losses through 16). At the same time, you can point to the win column and say four wins in 16 games isn’t great, but it’s not like the club isn’t bringing in points consistently, either, having racked up a league-high eight draws. You can only point fingers towards at least two of those games (probably more) and say the club should have gained more points — Philadelphia and New England.
Those three points dropped in consecutive weeks back in April could have had the team sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference right now, trailing New York City FC by a handful of points with two games in hand. But two incorrect officiating decisions turned four points into one across those matches. And maybe Adrian Heath would still have a job in Orlando.
But results aside, Orlando City’s problems have always run deeper than the coaching staff.
Ownership set out to "defy expectations" last season, hoping to become just the second expansion side along with the 2009 Seattle Sounders to make it to the playoffs in their first year. MLS is not a forgiving league for young clubs, typically, and the road to achieving glory early was always going to be tough.
Ownership’s negligence to that fact has led us here.
Major League Soccer is not an easy league to win in. Seattle may be the last expansion team to make it to the playoffs, and maybe one of the more successful teams in the league since their arrival, but as of right now they hold just as many MLS Cups as Orlando.
I’ve written this same argument several times, and it’s even something that Orlando City had in mind upon entering the league: this club, with this roster, was not built to win championships from Day 1. Rather, it was built as a foundation -- a team with young players that would grow and develop into a team capable of winning championships three or four years down the road. It was all a part of the three-year plan that Heath and company put together in 2014 that started with the signings of players like Tommy Redding, Tyler Turner, Harrison Heath, Rafael Ramos, Carlos Rivas, and Bryan Rochez. The idea was to be competitive out of the gate, but to build toward being a perennial contender.
Orlando City had the youngest team in the league by far last season, and it’s no surprise the Lions struggled the way that they did. And there’s no denying that it was a good opportunity for those players to learn from their mistakes, learn the league and their opponents, and, more importantly, get better as soccer players.
Arguably, some of them did that, and the three-year plan was working as it should.
But it was easy to see a shift away from that plan this season, most notably when the club brought in high-priced and/or down-the-road players like Antonio Nocerino and Júlio Baptista. The former is mostly accused of being an impulsive ownership decision rather than a tactical move by the coaching staff.
The off-season chaos in the front office was not a one-time deal. It was a clear sign of the club changing direction and getting away from the plan that it originally set out on.
It’s very easy to look at the parallels here between Orlando and its expansion partner, New York City FC.
Both sides came into MLS with ambitious ownership groups with money to spend and an eye towards winning. Neither team made the playoffs last season, and NYCFC, in turn, fired Head Coach Jason Kreis after just one year, a move met with much criticism and confusion throughout the league. Alas, Orlando had ultimately won the expansion battle last season.
Now, here we are halfway through each side’s second season. NYCFC is sitting in first place in the East under new coach Patrick Vieira, and Orlando City is struggling to stay in playoff contention.
Was the decision to fire Heath in any way an effect of watching NYCFC succeed under a new coach? Maybe, but we might never know that.
But what we do know now: Orlando City wants to win, and it will do anything to get to where it wants to be. Even if that means abandoning plans mid-course and starting all over.