In Adrian Heath’s first season coaching Orlando City SC at the top level back in 2015, the coach put on an in-game display that still sticks with the club’s supporters three years later.
“This guy who really was not just one of the faces, but he was almost the spirit animal. He was just so passionate, and he was fiery,” said Matt Favero, a longtime fan and current vice president of supporters group The Ruckus. “There was a game during the first season when he got ejected for arguing with the ref, and he was walking across the field ... and he just started screaming and throwing his arms up like ‘C’mon, c’mon!’ Like flipping out.
“Just the look on his face and the intensity and the passion, you can’t manufacture that. It’s one of those things that’s just deep within your soul. That energy was part of our spirit as a club, our identity. We related to it. We fed off of it.”
About a year after that defining moment, the club that Heath helped build — from its inception in 2008 as the Austin Aztex, through a move to Florida and to an eventual ascension to MLS — fired him after a run of bad results early in the 2016 season. On Saturday night, Heath will make his first return to his former home with his new team, Minnesota United.
When the two teams met last season, United forward Christian Ramirez scored the only goal of the game and celebrated it with his new coach on the sideline. This meeting is bound to be an even more meaningful occasion because it’s at Orlando City Stadium, which opened just last season.
“It’ll be emotional for me on Saturday for the simple reason is that it’ll be the first time I’ve been in the stadium with it being full,” Heath said. “And that’s been something that for 6½ years was the dream to build, and I had a big input in a lot of the things that went into the stadium.”
Heath isn’t the only one from United making a bittersweet homecoming.
Assistant coaches Mark Watson and Ian Fuller were on his staff there, and Fuller even started with the club as a player in 2010. Star midfielder Kevin Molino followed Heath to Minnesota after a career year in 2016 in one of the biggest trades in MLS history. And Heath’s son, midfielder Harrison Heath, will also make his first trip back after spending last season with Atlanta United. Even sideline reporter Jamie Watson played for Heath, from 2009-13.
While all of the former Orlando faction have stressed how this game, in the grand scheme, is just like any other, it’s also clear that the ending of Heath’s tenure with the club will never quite sit right. Heath has said his firing seemed a little trigger-happy, and he didn’t appreciate how media members knew of his dismissal before he did.
Heath’s removal was pretty much the start of a big turnover at Orlando. Only a handful of players and staff from Heath’s era are still with the club.
“The ownership group when they came in, they paid the fee, they built the stadium, they did everything their way, and eventually they wanted it to be their club,” Jamie Watson said. “Adrian is so beloved that they were never going to be able to have it be 100 percent their way while Adrian was there. … That was something money couldn’t buy.”
Bobby Murphy was one of Heath’s assistants at Orlando and has known him for about a decade. Murphy said the day Heath was fired and he became the interim coach was one of his “hardest days professionally.”
“I didn’t give them an answer right away. I immediately got off the phone and called him and volunteered to follow him out the door,” said Murphy, who is still on staff at Orlando. “And he said, ‘Don’t be stupid. This is a great opportunity for you. Don’t worry about me.’ ”
Despite the ending, Tom Traxler, one of Orlando’s broadcasters, said Orlando is planning a tribute for Heath during Saturday’s game. And the supporters’ groups might recognize Heath as well.
“The only thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is he will get an unbelievable reception when he is introduced to that stadium,” Traxler said. “That is a for sure thing.”
Everything did work out for Heath in the end. United hired him a couple of months later to do essentially what he did at Orlando: build a club — from the team to the stadium — into something lasting. The hope this time around, though, is that he actually stays long enough to see the finished product.
“It’s almost like a Shakespearean tragedy,” Favero said, “that he didn’t get to see through the dream to at least opening the stadium. That would have been the right thing to do.”