The first three times Minnesota United’s Adrian Heath coached against an Orlando City franchise he truly built with his own hands, he made it clear it will never be just another game.
It certainly won’t be when the Loons meet his former team Thursday in the MLS is Back tournament semifinals for the right to play next Tuesday for a trophy, a 2021 CONCACAF Champions League spot and $1.1 million in prize money.
Heath coached Orlando City to two championships and three first-place finishes during four third-tier USL Pro seasons into MLS play before he was fired during its second big-league season in 2016.
He’s the one who once drove the van overnight, handed out fliers and helped handyman/assistant coach Ian Fuller hammer a needed locker room into existence.
Like his league, Heath now is back as well, playing these tournament games on the same Disney resort fields his USL Pro team played one season. He is much the same coach, still seeking the proper talent needed to play a more “expansive” game. But he’s also mostly the same guy.
“I look a bit grayer and a little bit older,” Heath said in a video conference call. “That’s what this job does to you. I think I’ve maintained the same enthusiasm I’ve always done. I’m probably a little bit more patient — maybe not much — and a little bit mellower at times. Players still want to see that enthusiasm and I don’t think that has changed. Apart from being a bit grayer and a bit heavier, I think I’m pretty much the same.”
Minnesota United hired him — four months after Orlando City fired him — to lead its expansion franchise into MLS existence, just as Heath did with his former team.
He was asked if he still wonders what could have been.
“Sometimes, but there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then,” Heath said. “A lot of things have changed. It’s unrecognizable, really, as the club that I left. There’s only three people still left.
“… It will always be more than just another game for me because of the respect I have from the supporters. We built the club together. I always like coming back to the city. I still have a home here. Orlando is something special and dear to me.”
Orlando City has made five coaching coaches since it fired Heath with a 4-8-4 record in July 2016. Two of them have coached more than the 55 MLS games he did when he was there. The franchise didn’t reach the playoffs in its first five seasons; Heath led the Loons there last fall in their third season. In December, Orlando City hired Colombian and veteran MLS coach Oscar Pareja, who now has his team two games from winning its first major trophy.
“I’ve known Adrian for years,” Pareja said in a separate video call. “I know how hard this job is. Sometimes things bounce our way and sometimes it doesn’t. But the recognition for the experience and the hard job Adrian has done and continues to do is huge. All my respect for the things he has brought to the league.”
Loons defender Chase Gasper calls the semifinal motivation enough but acknowledges Heath’s back story provides a bit more.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to beat them and make sure our coach gets the win,” Gasper said. “It’s going to help our coach. It’s going to help our club. At this point, I don’t think the players need extra motivation. We’ve shown that with every single game.”
Heath is 2-0-1 against Orlando City since he left there. This year the Loons are undefeated in two regular-season games and five tournament games.
“I’m a professional guy and now every waking hour for me and my staff is try to think of a way to make Minnesota what we want it to be,” he said.