A dozen years ago, Adrian Heath found himself in Austin, Texas about to embark on his first season as manager of a lower-tiered professional soccer club. There was no pressure because there were no expectations. Soccer, or football, as the Englishman prefers to call it, was making headway in the United States, but was nowhere near the level of popularity seen today.
Since those early days in Texas, the former English Premier League star with Everton has been on a whirlwind journey that’s included stops with two leagues, three teams, and one bubble. Each stop along the way, like his time as a player, he’s been successful. Tonight, Heath will stand on the sidelines and watch the two MLS clubs he started from the ground up battle it out for a berth in the MLS Is Back Tournament finals. But make no mistake about it; this is more than just a game. It’s much deeper than that.
Adrian Heath’s journey from Austin to Orlando
When Adrian Heath accepted the job to manage a soccer team in Austin, it was all a leap of faith. Why? There was no team. There were no offices. It was nothing but the idea of friend and businessman Phil Rawlins, who was also co-owner of Stoke City back in England. That concept soon became reality, and in 2008 Heath managed the Austin Aztex FC in its first season in the USL.
The goal was simple—build the best minor-league soccer organization in the nation. After a couple of years in Austin, and not getting the traction Rawlins wanted with the club, he relocated the team to Orlando. Heath went with him. And that’s when things took off.
From day one in Orlando, the plan was similar to Austin with the desire to build a solid minor-league club, but also with the hopes of one day joining the MLS. To achieve that, the team would have to be successful both on the pitch and in the stands. Heath knew if he did his part, the second part would happen organically.
Heath did just that. In four seasons with Orlando City in the USL-Pro Division, Heath guided the club to three regular-season titles, and two championships. And naturally, the fans followed. The club was regularly near the top of the league in attendance. Those two ingredients combined resulted in the MLS naming Orlando City as an expansion franchise for the 2015 season.
Orlando’s promotion to MLS and Heath’s three-year plan
Now in the MLS, Phil Rawlins and Adrian Heath had achieved the goal they had set years earlier. However, in order to maintain that same level of success at the top tier of U.S. soccer competition, there would need to be some adjustments. Rawlins and Heath both agreed to a three-year plan, allowing the manager three seasons to prove himself all over again.
In that first season, Orlando finished with a 12-14-8 record and narrowly missed out on the MLS playoffs as an expansion club. The second season started off slowly for Heath and the Lions, but it’s what was happening behind the scenes that was more problematic. Rawlins was no longer the majority owner, and therefore, he didn’t have control of personnel decisions. In July 2016, just over a year and a half into his tenure with the MLS club, Heath was fired.
“I thought that I’d given enough to the club for them to give me that time,” Heath said. “And obviously, we had a new ownership group and Phil had sold out to the Brazilian people. And so the situation changed. So I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I thought I was harshly treated.”
Adrian Heath was disappointed by the firing, but also frustrated he would never get to manage a game in the soccer-specific stadium he had dreamed of playing in.
Adrian Heath achieves success in Minnesota
Adrian Heath wasn’t out of a job long. Ironically, he found himself in a very similar situation just months later when the expansion franchise Minnesota United hired him. Heath agreed with ownership on a similar three-year plan as he had done in Orlando.
Last season Heath finished his third year in Minnesota. The team made it to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup, and more importantly, made it to the MLS playoffs. In his three seasons leading the Loons, Heath’s club has won twice and had one draw against Orlando. He’s looking for a third win against his former club this evening in the MLS Is Back Tournament semifinals. But Heath, who’s never been one to shy away from his feelings, said playing against Orlando, it’s not just another team.
“Orlando City will never be just another football club to me because I put too much into it. I still got a home here. This is something that I spent six and a half years building. I would go to bed at night thinking about it and waking up in the morning thinking about it. I will always have an incredible amount of affection for the club.”
Tonight, for 90 minutes in Orlando, Heath will put aside his fondness for the former club he managed at its infancy. He knows all the goals he had hoped to achieve in Orlando are now clearly in focus with Minnesota. And the only way to get there is by taking down his former team in the process.