Even the third time around now, Minnesota United’s game Saturday against an Orlando City team that Loons coach Adrian Heath once tirelessly built remains for him unlike any other.
Heath coached the franchise in two cities, spending nearly eight seasons. He led the team on and off the field from the United Soccer League to Major League Soccer and a big-league debut that filled the city’s vast Citrus Bowl for its first game in March 2015.
“I had great years there, put in an awful lot there,” Heath said. “That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, to make the club relevant in a city that had never had football, culminating in 62,000 people on opening day of the MLS season. So they will always be something more than just another team for me.”
Heath left England to coach an expansion USL team in Austin, Texas, for two seasons before he relocated with it to Orlando for the 2011 season. He led Orlando City to the third-tier USL Pro league’s regular-season and playoff championships in its first season there. The team, with a young midfielder from Trinidad named Kevin Molino on the roster, finished no worse than second in its division before moving up to MLS.
In that time, he coached and guided personnel decisions that helped build the roster toward major league status. He also played salesman, pitching the sport and his team to any gathering that would listen.
“People who weren’t there don’t know what we put in to make the club what it was,” Heath said. “It was 6½ years, day in and day out, every night out in the community trying to build the club and the profile of the club. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, you name it, we were there. We were there at the opening of an envelope if it meant us getting some publicity that helped build the club.
“You can’t put the amount of time and effort I did into that club and never have more than just a normal feeling for it. That will never change.”
Heath was fired 16 games into the 2016 season, Orlando City’s second in MLS. Four months later, Minnesota United, after completing its final season in the North American Soccer League, hired him for its move into MLS.
He has coached his former team twice since then, winning both matches. United defeated Orlando 1-0 at TCF Bank Stadium over Memorial Day weekend 2017. The Loons won 2-1 in Orlando in last season’s second game, in a soccer-specific downtown stadium for which Heath provided consulting.
“It was the first time I’d been back in the stadium, in a proper capacity,” Heath said. “It’s a little bit like this: We had a hand in an awful lot of stuff that went into building that stadium.”
Molino’s history with the Orlando franchise includes playing in its first four USL seasons there and then two more in MLS before United and Heath traded for him in January 2017. He went back to Orlando with Heath for last season’s second game, but he tore his ACL before halftime, his second such injury in three years.
“Unfortunate, but last game there I had bad memories,” Molino said. “Hopefully this time around, I have good memories.”
Like Heath, Molino acknowledges that despite being the opponent on Saturday, Orlando isn’t just another MLS team.
“I love the club,” Molino said. “That’s the first club I played coming out of Trinidad and they gave me everything that I want when I leave Trinidad. That a club that’s close to my heart.”
Orlando arrives to Allianz Field chasing the Eastern Conference’s seventh and final playoff spot. Minnesota United is second in the Western Conference and aimed at reaching the playoffs for the first time in its three MLS seasons.
“Any player or coach loves to go back against his old club and likes to win,” Heath said. “You want to show people maybe what they’re missing. People who know me will you this is true: I give everything I’ve got when I’m working for a club, but as soon as I move on, I want to beat them like everybody else.”