Those closest to Adrian Heath all have glowing reviews for the Minnesota United FC coach: personable, bubbly, caring, always has a good joke or story at the ready.
And while it only takes observing one practice session to see he’s clearly not the classic stoic English manager, Heath, by no means, is a lax leader.
Just ask his star player, midfielder Kevin Molino. Back when the two were with Orlando City SC in the then-third division United Soccer League, the team had to travel by bus for a match amid a downpour.
Molino showed up late to catch his ride.
“He was just so fuming mad at me,” Molino said. “It does show me that time is very important. It doesn’t matter what you do, you have to be on time. You have to respect your other teammates.”
Heath, 56, joined United in late November when the club had yet to announce its first two signed players. In the past three months, he’s put together a squad from scratch that will begin its inaugural Major League Soccer season starting Friday.
But for Heath, creating a new team isn’t unfamiliar territory.
“The one thing Adrian has above everything else is experience,” assistant coach Mark Watson said. “He’s been around the game for so long. He’s been through every possible situation you could ever have a thousand times. … There’s very little that will surprise him.”
The Englishman moved to the U.S. in 2008 to start the Austin Aztex, which eventually moved to Florida to become Orlando City for the 2011 season before ascending to MLS in 2015. Heath left school as a teenager to pursue a nearly 20-year playing career. Being a coach was always the next step.
“When I played, I was always the one who asked questions of why, what are the reasons for this,” Heath said. “The reason we’re all coaches is that it’s the nearest thing to playing because there’s not a day goes by when I don’t miss being a football player.”
Heath, nicknamed Inchy for his 5-6 frame, was a midfielder for seven different clubs but is best known for his time at Everton from 1982-88. He won just about everything out there — two league titles, an FA Cup and a UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup — all while scoring 71 goals in 226 appearances.
By 1996, he had started transitioning into coaching, managing Burnley and Sheffield United as well as being the interim coach at Coventry City. When Coventry passed him over for the full-time gig, the American opportunity appeared.
“I always remember the story, going home and telling my wife and kids we might go to America,” Heath said. “ ‘Well, what’s the team called?’ ‘Oh, don’t know. We haven’t got a name yet.’ ”
While his daughter was in the middle of exams and his son — who played for him in Orlando and is now a midfielder with fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC — was training at an academy, the whole family picked up and moved to Texas.
Eight years after he built that team from, in his words, “absolutely nothing,” Orlando fired Heath halfway through last season. The team was 4-4-8 and a spot out of playoff contention.
“I’m still a bit bitter about the way that it ended,” Heath said. “We went through an awful lot to build it the way it did, and we were, like, what, 17 months into a three-year plan? And to suddenly have it all changed, yeah, it’s something I didn’t understand. Certainly don’t think I deserved.
“But, hey, that is football.”
Heath isn’t one to dwell too much on the past. He called Orlando a huge part of his life, but now he is on to a “new chapter” with Minnesota. While it was a little daunting to walk right back into a first-year expansion team, Heath said the opportunity to be a part of something from the start is special.
Heath calls himself a player’s coach, one who is there for his players and sticks by them. Tactically, he’s big on possession. In the end, he wants United to win but with style. The players should enjoy playing, and the fans should enjoy watching.
Ian Fuller started as a player under Heath with Austin in 2010 before becoming a player-coach when the team moved to Orlando. He was a full-time assistant when the team went to MLS and came to United in 2016 as an assistant before reuniting as part of Heath’s staff for this 2017 season.
Fuller said players will play for Heath because they know the coach really cares about them. He experienced this himself when he was moving into his coaching career during a tough time in his life.
“I had just lost my father. [Heath] was integral in that in terms of me, not necessarily keeping things together, but he’s like a best friend, a father, my boss,” Fuller said. “He’s all those things to me. And to dive into the soccer side of it so much was exactly what I needed.”
Watson, who also coached with Heath in Orlando, said Heath is a very hands-on coach who leads by example, being animated and energized for every training session, which then translates to the players.
Molino said Heath is good at reading what motivates certain players and using whatever tactics necessary to pull the best performance out of them.
“He taught me nearly everything in my football career,” said Molino, whom Heath discovered and brought to Orlando in 2011. “And he gives me the opportunity to leave Trinidad to come here to fulfill my dreams.”
Heath said he should be up for U.S. citizenship this summer. After nearly 10 years of growing the game here, he’s looking forward to being an American, too.
“This country’s been good to me,” Heath said. “The old cliché, but the greatest country in the world. I think it is, I really do.”