This week marks the one-year anniversary of Orlando City firing former head coach Adrian Heath. Heath had been the only coach the team had known in its four USL seasons and its first one and a half MLS seasons. Time will be the biggest determiner of how successful the coaching change has been, with replacement Jason Kreis still building his legacy in the City Beautiful. One year on, how does Heath’s tenure rate?
- Heath’s success in USL is undeniable. He mastered that league and how to get the most out of players playing at that level. Orlando City’s success in the USL, with two USL championships and three regular season titles, filled the stands and created an audible buzz around the club and soccer in Orlando.
- Heath’s fiery passion and fantastic personality helped the growing fan base identify with the club. I just don’t see Orlando City fans getting excited about a mild-mannered strategist in those early seasons. While we still celebrate players like Miguel Gallardo, Denis Chin, and Jamie Watson, it’s Adrian Heath’s passion and energy that are still part of the DNA of Orlando’s supporter culture.
- Heath’s first MLS team featured a young core, many of whom are still playing for the club. Heath brought Carlos Rivas, Cristian Higuita, Cyle Larin, Tommy Redding, Earl Edwards, Jr., and Rafael Ramos into the club. Larin has become a consistent MLS striker who has caught the eye of European scouts. Redding played in the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup. Rivas is slowly becoming the player Heath imagined he would become, Higuita is a consistent starter, and Edwards Jr. has found minutes with OCB as he backs up the consistent Joe Bendik. While the organization collectively brings players in, Heath undoubtedly had some role in bringing these players to the club. While time will still tell how much these players will contribute to Orlando City over a career, many seem to be making good on the promise Heath saw in them.
- Heath just hasn’t cut it at the MLS level, in Orlando or for the club he now stalks the sidelines for, Minnesota United FC. I’m not sure why and won’t pretend here to explain it. Strapped with expansion clubs hasn’t helped. Despite the massive planning effort put into bringing Orlando from the USL to MLS, something about that transition just never went as anyone dreamed it would. I hope Minnesota shows more patience with Heath than Orlando did.
- Just as the promise of the young players mentioned above was a positive, some of the players Heath (and the Orlando City front office) brought into the club were just bad decisions. Bryan Rochez on a Designated Player contract has to lead this list. In a league as competitive as MLS, investing that type of contract on a player that flopped was a critical mistake of Heath’s Orlando City MLS tenure. Add to that a loyalty to players like Lewis Neal and Luke Boden hurt Heath’s teams. As people, as USL players I love both of them, but when they weren’t able to perform at the MLS level for Orlando, Heath moved too slowly to find other solutions.
- Heath never figured out Orlando City’s defense. This doomed Orlando’s first two MLS campaigns as veteran clubs sliced and diced Orlando’s back line. The irony here is that Heath’s defense in the USL had been a strong point of the team with consistency and stability throughout most of the seasons. I’ve always thought this had less to do with the back line, and more to do with an overall team strategy that left the defense vulnerable to the other coach’s counter-tactics. While Heath’s Minnesota team seems to also struggle on defense, Orlando’s season shows that the problems still remain with his old club as well.
Heath’s firing one year on still sits uncomfortably with me. Despite my frustrations as a fan, I felt a connection to the man they call Inchy. I’d have loved to see things work out and the lessons the club was learning from applied quickly to fix the problems that the Lions faced in their first one and a half seasons in MLS. I’ll never be convinced Heath wanted to deal with a player like Kaká, preferring to get the most out of unsung players than trying to force an aging World Player of the Year to his athletic best. I’m never sure Heath fully gelled with new owner Flávio Augusto da Silva. I’m not sure of any of this, I just know that USL Heath and MLS Heath seemed like two very different people. I’ll always wonder why it never worked in the end.
The one thing I am sure of is that Heath’s efforts and passion are forever in the DNA of Orlando City. Teams like Atlanta United FC and New York City FC seem to be rewriting the expansion blueprint, with success coming from teams not strapped down with a history in the lower leagues. That said, I’d never trade Orlando’s USL years and all the passion and fire Heath brought to the city and the club.