Here at SBNation it’s “What If” Week — an opportunity to speculate about what could have happened for the teams we hold so near and dear to our hearts if something had gone a little differently. Today, I’ll be taking a look at one of the most popular “what if” questions — if not the most important question — related to Orlando City SC: what if Adrian Heath hadn’t been fired?
Heath has quite a bit of history with OCSC. He was the team’s head coach back when the Lions first joined the USL, and stayed in that position after Orlando joined Major League Soccer as an expansion franchise back in 2015. Under Heath the team finished its first year in MLS in seventh place out of 10 in the Eastern Conference, only missing the playoffs by five points. The next season saw Heath fired on July 7 after a 4-0 loss to FC Dallas. Orlando ultimately finished eighth of 10 in the Eastern Conference on 41 points, missing the playoffs by virtue of one point.
The question of what might have happened had Heath not been sacked is a complicated one. Based on the club’s form, his firing was a bit of a head-scratcher. The team had only lost five games in all competitions when he was sacked, and while a U.S. Open Cup loss to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the loss to FC Dallas came back to back, the news was still quite the surprise. After all, that Dallas loss snapped a five-game unbeaten run in MLS play (2-0-3) and the Lions had only lost once in their previous eight league outings.
The team was still in the thick of battling for playoff spots, and all four of the team’s league losses on the season were to eventual playoff teams and all were on the road. Combined with the team nearly qualifying for the playoffs in its first year in the league — with a strong 5-1 finish to the season — it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think the team’s longtime coach would have plenty of goodwill built up, but that wasn’t the case. Making matters even more difficult, especially in hindsight, was the fact that Heath wasn’t able to complete his three-year plan, something he said ownership had agreed to when he was made coach of the MLS team.
Typically, speculating on what would or might have happened had a coach not been fired is just that — speculation. But in this particular case we have a bit more to go off of, because we can look at what Heath was able to do with the club he’s in charge of now. Heath became head coach of Minnesota United in November 2016, leading the club in all three full seasons of its MLS existence. The first two years were struggles as the Loons finished ninth and 10th in the Western Conference with 36 points both seasons. However, 2019 saw the club comfortably earn a playoff spot with a fourth-place finish in the West on 53 points, as well as advance to the final of the U.S. Open Cup.
While Minnesota lost both the final and its league playoff game, the job that Heath has done with the Loons is undeniable. He rewarded the trust shown to him by ownership and built a competent roster capable of defending well and scoring plenty of goals. Would the same have happened in Orlando had he not been fired?
Truthfully, it’s difficult to say, but I feel comfortable making the statement that Orlando would have had just as good a chance (if not better) of making the playoffs in 2016 had Heath not been fired midway through the season. At the time of Heath’s firing the team had taken 20 points from 15 games and was in seventh place. Those are not world beating numbers, but far from reason to panic and light everything on fire. Add in the fact that the team missed the playoffs by a single point and it isn’t unreasonable to say that the team probably would have turned one or two of its six more draws in 2016 into wins and squeaked into the postseason.
From there, who knows? Heath has certainly proven himself capable of building a roster that can compete in MLS 3.0, and I feel that given time, resources, and support he would have been able to do the same in Orlando. The Lions still wouldn’t be able to financially compete with some teams in the league, but with continuity at head coach and a consistent plan, I feel safe saying that the difficulties the team has faced during the last several years wouldn’t have been to the same degree.
There isn’t nearly enough evidence to say that the team would have developed into an Eastern Conference heavyweight, but I think it wouldn’t be unrealistic to say the team would have become consistent fifth to seventh finishers had Heath been permitted to fulfill his three-year plan.
In short, while its tough to say exactly where Orlando’s fortunes would be today had Heath not been fired, I think there’s a good chance the team would have snuck into the 2016 postseason and become more competitive when it came to making the playoffs in subsequent years. Minnesota United provides a possible glimpse at what could have been if Inchy hadn’t been fired, but we’ll never know for sure what really would have happened.