Orlando City is in its fifth season in Major League Soccer since making the jump from the USL. In some ways the club has been a model organization, doing a number of things correctly, but one glaring area where it has fallen short is in maintaining early momentum.
Part of that can be attributed to less visibility in the community (where have all the car magnets gone?). But much of it can also be blamed on a poor on-field product which fell just shy of “defying expectations” in 2015 and then diminished for the next three consecutive years, hitting its nadir with 2018’s dismal 8-22-4 season.
Last year’s season of futility included four separate streaks of three or more losses after a club-record six-match winning streak. In addition, the Lions won only one game and picked up six measly points after July 14.
Things are already somewhat improved in 2019, but it’s difficult to look at Minnesota United’s success across the board this season and wonder what might have been had Orlando’s front office not been so damned impatient in its MLS infancy. Specifically, the club fired original manager Adrian Heath midway through the team’s second MLS season.
Heath has taken expansion Minnesota United from the usual first-year doormat to the cusp of something special in the team’s third year in MLS. The Loons are in the thick of the playoff race, sitting third in the Western Conference standings, and will play Atlanta later this month in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup final. The fact that this is taking place in Minnesota’s third year in Major League Soccer is significant (more on that later).
Back in 2015, Orlando City brought its USL coach and several players forward with the move to MLS. The club signed superstar Kaká, a few additional veterans, and some young promising players to try to strike a balance between experience and young talent. Heath, the club’s original coach, had a three-year plan for success and came just a few points short of piloting his Lions to a playoff spot in Orlando’s expansion season. That 44-point season and the team’s 12 wins that year remain the club’s best totals to date.
Things seemed to be on track as 2016 began. The Lions started out undefeated in their first four matches, going 2-0-2 with a +4 goal differential. That unbeaten run should have stretched to six. A road loss to Philadelphia came in Game 5, with the Professional Referees Organization issuing an apology to Orlando afterwards, stating that Tranquillo Barnetta’s free kick goal should not have counted. The Lions then went on to draw New England nine days later after a horrific handball call on Servando Carrasco by referee Baldomero Toledo gave Lee Nguyen an easy 96th-minute equalizer.
You can certainly argue whether Kevin Molino’s seeming game winner should also have been nullified, but without video review at the time, it was a much more understandable mistake. Heath said at the time he felt the call on Carrasco was a make-up call, but who would have alerted Toledo for the need to have one? Certainly New England players, but since when should a referee listen to one team’s appeal on something he didn’t see? If the assistant referee had seen a handball, he should have raised his flag. Without a VAR in his headset, it’s unlikely Toledo was making up a call to offset something he couldn’t have known was an error. But, I digress.
The bigger point is that Heath had his club two blown calls from a 3-0-3 mark after six games to start 2016. A 3-2 road loss at Red Bulls — the eventual Eastern Conference champion — followed in Game 7 and that match also had its own officiating issues. While Orlando led 1-0, Karl Ouimette appeared to foul Cyle Larin from behind on a breakaway in the 63rd minute and it wasn’t called. Had it been, Ouimette would have been sent off with the hosts already behind on the scoreboard. Instead, New York scored twice in the next six minutes to seize control of the match.
The Lions then posted consecutive draws at New England and home against the Red Bulls, before falling at eventual playoff side Sporting Kansas City. Heath then guided Orlando to a 3-0-3 streak to run the Lions’ record to 4-3-8. Sure, some of those draws were frustrating — less so than some of the calls that had led to dropped points — but things seemed to generally be headed in the right direction under Heath in Year 2.
Then the bottom dropped out in a one-week span and management blew things up.
It started with a 2-1 loss at home in the U.S. Open Cup to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Future Lion PC scored a 120th-minute stunner in extra time to steal a result in a match the Lions had completely dominated. Orlando had hit the woodwork multiple times — particularly striker Hadji Barry — and out-shot Fort Lauderdale 20-1 after halftime, but an outstanding night by Strikers goalkeeper Diego Restepo sent the NASL side through.
Five days later, the Lions visited eventual Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Dallas and lost 4-0 on July 4. Did the loss to Fort Lauderdale linger? Did the holiday match away from home affect the team’s mentality? Was it simply a matter of losing to a superior side? Some people believe it was a player revolt. If it was, it was a one-game revolt, because many of the starters didn’t play in the U.S. Open Cup match and the team had certainly been performing well enough prior to the loss to the Strikers, including fighting back to beat Toronto for the first time ever in the 100th minute.
Whatever it was, it ended up being Heath’s final game in charge.
Heath was sacked two days later, a news dump that took place in the evening, which we learned about in real time while recording the Mane Land PawedCast. At the time, the Lions were battling at the cusp of the playoff positions and had no prolonged losing spells typically associated with a coach being fired. The USOC loss and subsequent defeat at Dallas represented the team’s only consecutive losses in 2016 to that point. Orlando had lost five matches in all competitions and four in league play — all on the road and all to eventual playoff teams, with two of them coming with dubious officiating influence on the outcomes. The Lions went on to lose seven more times without Heath, winning five and drawing six more (three of those six draws came under interim coach Bobby Murphy).
Popular with the fans, Heath had been a Phil Rawlins appointee back before the club — then in the USL — had even moved to Orlando. He was never the choice of majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva or his number one front office hire, Alex Leitao. They inherited Rawlins’ choice. It’s not hard to imagine they had bigger names in mind for the position. Before playing his own way out of Orlando later on, Rawlins himself supported the firing publicly, although whether he privately agreed with it or was just being a good soldier and showing solidarity is something only he knows for sure.
Heath lamented — as all coaches do when fired — that he didn’t get a chance to see his project through to its conclusion, but specifically brought up a three-year plan (see? I told you we’d get back to that), which he said ownership had agreed to when he was officially named the team’s head coach entering MLS. Rosters, after all, typically take time to build correctly (please don’t @ me with outliers like Atlanta or LAFC). The team had not yet had time to build sufficient depth, had sustained considerable injuries in key positions, and had missed on some players who were expected to contribute more regularly.
Heath had been getting results regularly to that point of 2016 with a central defense tandem of David Mateos and a one-legged Seb Hines!
When I spoke to then-GM Paul McDonough after he left the club and joined Atlanta, he admitted to me that he had made some mistakes in going “too young” at the start and said he’d learned a lot from that initial roster build. Likewise, I’m sure Heath learned a lot from his first year as an MLS head coach, and has continued to gain wisdom and experience with Minnesota.
Orlando City had erred in its handling of McDonough, who the club undermined by hiring a “chief soccer officer” above him in early November of 2015. Carlos Carneiro made zero impact on Orlando City other than to run McDonough out of town in his whopping 55 days at the club in late 2015, and paved the way for Rawlins to hold the GM position on an interim basis and Niki Budalic to eventually get the job. In retrospect, this was likely Orlando’s biggest error on the technical side in the club’s history, but the firing of Heath may prove to not be far behind.
Had Heath been given the three years of his plan, there’s no guarantee it would be Orlando City battling for a home field playoff position or set to make an appearance in the U.S. Open Cup final. There is no guarantee the Lions would be better off now than they are. After all, there are no guarantees of any kind in life.
But, in a season in which that erroneously allowed Barnetta goal turned out to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs in 2016 — the Lions would have finished level on points with New England with a better goal differential, while the Union would have had two fewer points to finish behind Orlando — it seems in hindsight that keeping Heath would have been a better play. He had not lost at home in league play and hadn’t lost a game to a non-playoff team all season at the time of his firing. That may or may not have contributed, but even if the team was almost that good the rest of the way, the entire trajectory of Orlando City may have been quite improved.
Today, Heath has had nearly his three years of system installation, growing pains, and roster building. Minnesota United management has been patient with him despite some fan support for his firing as early as the team’s first year and certainly into 2018. The Loons conceded 70 goals and amassed only 36 points in their first year, then conceded 71 times last year while putting up the same 36 points. It would have been understandable to make a change and move on from Heath.
But Minnesota took another path, continued to build the roster, and gave Heath his third year. He’s rewarded the club’s patience with more points already this season (38), 11 wins, a sparkling 7-1-4 home record, and a trip to the USOC final. One more victory would give Minnesota its highest win total to date and equal Orlando’s best ever, which came under Heath in 2015.
The Loons’ success in 2019 definitely calls into question whether Orlando City’s management did the right thing in 2016, and one can’t help but wonder where the Lions would be in their development as an organization if OCSC had shown the same kind of patience as Minnesota United.
But the Lions didn’t learn much from the quick trigger with Heath. His replacement, Jason Kreis, also was given just about a year-and-a-half before being fired. Kreis’ team was actually above the playoff line in 2018 when he was let go, despite an incredible rash of injuries to the back line and the team’s only viable striker.
Current gaffer James O’Connor is nearing the end of his first full season as head coach after replacing Kreis. Some outlets speculate that O’Connor’s tenure may come to an end if the team struggles down the stretch, with Sirius XM host Jason Davis saying on his broadcast that it could have come after the FC Dallas match prior to the Lions winning that game.
It wouldn’t be surprising if O’Connor is on the hot seat when one considers that Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi was not with the team yet when the coach was hired. GMs, after all, like to select their own coaches. But if O’Connor — considered to be one of the best young coaches available at the time of his hiring — is let go during or after 2019, it would show that the club has continued to learn very little from its own past.
O’Connor is the first coach to improve upon the previous season’s point total, although that was a low bar following 2018. Despite the team being in the midst of a rebuild, he has a shot at leading the team to the playoffs and to its best-ever point total. He has already led it to its deepest U.S. Open Cup run. But the team may also finish ninth or 10th in the East. If that happens, and he’s let go, one has to wonder what, if anything, the leadership of Orlando City has learned in five years from the Adrian Heath example.