EXCLUSIVE: Adrian Heath's ambition to be best MLS coach leads him to Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Adrian Heath stayed relatively under the radar since he was fired by Orlando City midway through his second MLS season as coach.
Opportunities popped up to get back into coaching back in England within days of that announcement. There were offers to try out a TV career. Feelers were put out by some teams in the U.S.
Heath waited for the right moment, and on Tuesday morning the 55-year-old was named head coach of t2017 MLS expansion side Minnesota United FC. The job will come with plenty of challenges, but in his first comments since accepting the job, Heath told FourFourTwo he was eager to prove he could succeed in the top league.
“I’ve still got the burning ambition to be the best coach in the MLS and that’s why I’m here,” Heath said.
The end in Orlando was a messy one. Heath had been the director of the ship during one of the most successful eras of professional soccer in the U.S. Orlando City, then competing in the third-tier USL, compiled the best record through its first 100 games of any team in history. The Lions also took home two USL titles and three regular season championships.
Once in MLS and under new ownership, however, things started to unravel.
Relationships between the ownership group and the soccer operations team fell apart. Despite finishing just one spot out of the playoff hunt in a race that went down to the final day of the season, and tying Seattle for most wins by an expansion team in MLS history, changes were made in the offseason. General manager Paul McDonough was pushed out, only to be quickly scooped up by expansion Atlanta United. And after starting 4-4-8 in 2016, still very much in the playoff hunt, Heath was fired and replaced by Jason Kreis.
“I thought the circumstances of me losing my job were disappointing,” Heath said, in his first public comments about the firing. “The things that came out were really disappointing. I think what I had done for the job warranted more than three lines on the website. That was my disappointment. When I look back I’m really proud of what I did in Orlando. I don’t think it was a failure at any stage. The points per game, we were in the playoffs the second year. The first season we took it to the last game of the season, and with 44 points we would have been in [the playoffs] this year. So, I’m proud of what we achieved at Orlando. Disappointed in the way it ended, but that’s in the past now. What I want to try to do is go on better than I did in Orlando and I think we are capable of it.”
Heath took on a job that many see as one of the most challenging in MLS.
Observers around the league have wondered whether Minnesota United could be setting up for one of the worst seasons in the history of the league due to its late start in transitioning from NASL into MLS. Heath has heard the talk, he said, and he added he’d make sure his players hear it as well.
After putting together one of the most successful expansion teams in MLS history and still being fired, Heath said he wasn’t hesitant about taking on the job with another expansion team. Heath had a relationship with Minnesota general manager Manny Lagos and player personnel director Amos Magee, and he felt confident that he would have the support and time necessary to build a winning program.
“At the end of the day, results dictate whether you get time,” Heath said. “Sometimes, though, I look at Jesse [Marsch] who lasted a year in Montreal. Jesse is a really good coach. He’s really good at his job. The fact that you don’t get the results in year one of an expansion team doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing.
“Hopefully this is something where we stick to a plan. We put it together now and year by year we get better and better and culminate with a team that is competitive to win the championship and Supporters’ Shield year after year. Because that has to be the aim. We know it’s difficult. It’s not going to happen straightaway. We know this is a process. We are going to try everything we can, but it’s going to take time. And I know it’s not easy.”
Heath has a year and a half of experience in MLS to draw off now as he tries to build in Minnesota what he didn’t get a chance to finish building in Orlando.
He said he thinks the youth in Orlando – it was by far the youngest team in MLS in 2015, by minutes played – cost the team at times, and he will look to strike more of a balance in Minnesota. He also said he learned the premium of MLS experience in constructing the core of the roster, pointing to D.C. United’s success, and the importance of playing conservatively at times to secure points on the road.
Most aspects of Heath won’t change, however.
What Loons fans can expect
The attacking, 4-2-3-1 style of play will likely be back in Minnesota. The vivacious personality remains. And the aim to play attractive, possession-based soccer remains one of his “core values.”
Heath used the New York Red Bulls many times as an example for how, if a team has an identity and a strong core, it doesn’t need big-name Designated Players to win. He said he will build his team around the middle of the park and that there is a priority in identifying and signing a No. 10. He also said he was confident that, “when the time arises that it’s right for us to make a splash and bring in the right person, I think we’ll do it.”
Heath will also look for a striker to run the show up top. The former Everton striker helped develop Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin in his time in the U.S., and he might get a new pupil in Minnesota’s Christian Ramirez, who has scored 51 goals in three seasons in the NASL.
“Christian has probably scored the most goals in North America in the last three years,” Heath said. “So he’s obviously someone we are trying to convince this is where his future is.”
Heath has spent only a few days in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, but he was quick to say how much he had taken to the Twin Cities. In some ways, the cold weather is a reminder of his days growing up in Stoke-on-Trent in England. Heath joked his wife, Jane, could crack open the wardrobe she had put away while living in Florida.
Mostly, Heath said he was looking forward to getting to know the fan base in Minnesota. If there was one aspect for which Heath was best known in Orlando, it was building a bridge between the club and the fan base through being out in the community. Heath was always accessible, and it helped increase the visibility of the club in Orlando.
“It’s something I take a great deal of pride in is my relationship with fans everywhere I’ve been,” Heath said. “They are the lifeblood of the game. Without them we don’t have a game. Football in an empty stadium is not the same game. So, we have to appreciate what they do. People pay out of their own pocket to actually come and watch us play and I think with that we have a responsibility to the people we play for, always have had.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to know the supporters’ groups, getting to know how they feel and what they expect and what they like about the team, what they want from a team. Having that connection and involvement from them, you get a feel for what it’s like for them and what they want to see.”
That sort of talk will sound familiar to fans in Orlando. It made Heath a hugely popular figure in Central Florida. And as he takes the reigns of another team in MLS, Heath said he hopes to lead his new club against his old one when Orlando City opens up its new stadium.
“I am looking forward to going back,” Heath said. “That’ll be a bit of closure for me to the supporters. Considering how close I was with the supporters, never really having the opportunity to say goodbye properly is something I still think about. So going back into their new stadium, that would be nice to take a team back there.”