Instead of walking into a new soccer stadium with an over-capacity crowd clad in purple on a 74-degree day, Adrian Heath spent his 2017 home opener at a half-full college football field, snow obscuring how the maroon and gold colors of the venue clashed with the black and blue of the fans’ garb.
Heath, relieved of his coaching duties at Orlando in July 2016 after eight years of nurturing it to Major League Soccer success, didn’t have the chance to appreciate the finished stadium product in Florida. Now at the helm of Minnesota United for its inaugural MLS season, he will coach for the first time against his former team on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
“My phone’s blown up since” the end of the Loons’ match with the LA Galaxy on Sunday, Heath said, adding he will have a lot of family and friends coming into town. “I would like to say it’s no different, but it can’t be when you’ve spent the amount of time and involvement in building something like we did in Orlando.”
Orlando was Heath’s first American club, and the two were together for eight years: coincidentally, the same average length of a marriage in this country. The Englishman helped create the club from nothing, launching it as the lower-division Austin Aztex in 2008 before moving with the team to Florida in 2010 and eventually seeing it ascend to the top tier for the 2015 season.
But the team just missed the playoffs that first year. Last season, with a 4-4-8 record and a spot out of playoff contention, Orlando fired the only coach it had ever known.
Heath, who signed on with the Loons at the end of November, has been up front about his disappointment in how his time at Orlando ended. He said halfway through a three-year plan, the club abruptly changed course.
“From his standpoint, I think that he really wanted to see the club into the new stadium,” said assistant coach Ian Fuller, who played and coached with Heath during most of his tenure with Orlando. “We worked so hard to bring that club from nothing to where it was last year, so I think he was really devastated not to at least see the new stadium out. And especially, he thought that they were slowly building toward becoming a playoff team.”
Mark Watson, another one of Heath’s assistants who also coached with him at Orlando, said Heath handled his departure “with a lot of class,” but the firing was still extremely “personal.”
Of Saturday’s matchup, Watson said, “I know that it’s a game that he would very much like to win.”
United also features midfielder Kevin Molino, who played with Orlando from 2011-16 and was one of its stars. Molino was one of Minnesota’s biggest preseason acquisitions.
Extra motivation around the squad to take points from Orlando also stems from United (3-7-2) coming off a frustrating home loss and sitting two spots out of playoff contention in the Western Conference. Orlando (6-4-2) is fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Heath said he takes “a lot of satisfaction” from his Orlando days and the success the team has experienced. But the coach has fully moved on to making United an even better team.
“Part and parcel of being any coach is eventually, you get fired. That’s the one thing you know about. But I just thought there was a time and place, and I didn’t think that was the time or the right place,” Heath said. “But now I’m here. I want to build the same thing as we did there, here.
“I just want to win the game, and I’m sure that the people there do, too.”