Adrian Heath wasn’t panicking just yet, but he was certainly a bit anxious. For the first time in years, he was away from the field, away from the game, away from the banter and camaraderie that have defined his life since he was a child in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England.
Then, an opportunity came, and it was one that fit. Just months after being fired from one expansion project, Heath is ready to return to another, and he has a point to prove.
On Tuesday, Minnesota United announced that Heath would be the man to lead the club into MLS, giving the English-born head coach a second crack at leading an expansion side. It’s a project that is perhaps more daunting than the one he took on in Orlando City, but one that he feels more prepared for this time around.
Since leaving Orlando City in the summer, Heath said he’s watched the game more than he has in his entire life. The head coach jokingly admits that he had no hobbies to keep him occupied, just a desire to jump back in as soon as possible. He missed working with young players like Cyle Larin, watching film and imparting his experience on players looking to reach the next level. He missed the training ground, and all of the relationships build on it.
With Minnesota United, Heath gets another chance to build something from the ground up and, after a series of ups and downs last time around, it’s one that certainly intrigued him from the first minute.
“You look at what opportunities come about and I think the fact that I’ve been through this was an intriguing part for the club,” Heath told SBI. “The fact that I’ve just been through it, I have a good grasp of what’s out there. I think it was a perfect fit for me and I think it was a really good fit for the club as well.
“From my point of view, the growth has been trying to be better at my job, reflecting on what went right and what went wrong in Orlando, and basically working on certain things that, when I got the next job, I can kind of implement. I worked on a lot of things on the training field and what I would want to implement when I got back in. I’ve been busy, but there’s nothing quite like working with players every day.”
The process of getting Heath to Minnesota began several months back. Since his days with the Austin Aztex, Heath has been in touch with Minnesota United sporting director Manny Lagos, a man that was vital in building Minnesota United from middling lower league side to NASL powerhouse. When the Loons first announced their move to MLS, Lagos called Heath, asking for advice on making the transition as seamless as possible.
Shortly after, Heath was out of a job. Following a 4-4-8 start, Orlando City opted to part ways with their longtime manager, a man that has been in charge of the team for the better part of a decade. At the time, the Lions had two games in hand, and were certainly in the playoff picture, but Heath was a part of a massive wave of dismissals as the club shifted from within.
Opportunities came. Heath was offered a job in England less than a week after his Orlando City dismissal, but, after years in America, leaving just didn’t feel right.
As Minnesota United’s move to MLS drew closer, Heath and Lagos remained in contact. Eventually, Lagos gave Heath a call, asking if he would be interested in taking over for the Loons’ jump to MLS. Heath met with the club and was convinced: the fit was right.
Heath says it is very apparent just how serious Minnesota United’s executives are taking the jump. With a hefty franchise fee and a stadium project still moving along, Heath says you can tell that owner Dr. Bill McGuire is not taking any half measures. It’s a team built from within, a group of Minnesotans wanting to make Minnesota proud. Heath says he felt that pride immediately, and wanted to be a part of making something special within a community that, like Orlando before it, built a soccer culture from the ground up.
“This is my home now,” Heath said. “I made conscious decision to be a part of the growth of the sport in this country. I have great belief in the growth of the game here. MLS, national team, and it’s something I want to be a part of. The fact that I left Orlando, the way it happened, maybe I’m more determined to stay here and prove people wrong and show them that I can cope and coach at this level.
“I was disappointed with the way that it ended,” Heath added of his time in Orlando. “I was disappointed with one or two of the things that were said after I’d left, but that’s all in the past now. I’m looking forward to the challenge that I have here, but it’s a big challenge. We all know how difficult of a challenge it is being an expansion team, and we’re a little bit behind in this moment, but there’s been a lot of work going on behind the scenes when I got here, so over the next 10-12 weeks, we’ll work together to put together a squad that can be competitive.”
The one thing Heath says he’ll need is time, and at least for now, it’s is in short supply. Heath, Lagos and Co. have just several months to construct an entire roster, get them clicking and ready to tackle what MLS has to offer. It’s a monumental task, but one that Heath has taken on before. The experience in Orlando, Heath says, will be vital. Making the transition seamless is impossible but making it a bit simpler is certainly an achievable goal.
Heath says both he and Lagos will be traveling to South and Central America over the coming weeks, while adding that there are “one or two” players that the club has identified and wants to bring in. Unlike Orlando City, there likely won’t be any players of Kaka’s magnitude walking through the door, but Heath understands that a different approach is certainly needed.
According to Heath, the Lions were too young in their opening season, and it came back to bite them. Of the team’s three DP spots, two were occupied by Bryan Rochez and Carlos Rivas, both of whom were just 20-years-old when Orlando City kicked off. At times, Heath says his Orlando City team was too “naive” and, after falling just one game short of the postseason, could have been much improved with a bit of experience.
That experience, will come in the spine, and the club will utilize all mechanisms to get it built. Domestically, the club has plenty of allocation money, a vital asset that clubs around the league will always need. There’s an expansion draft, trades to be made, players to be signed.
The club is expected to keep at least several faces. Fullbacks Kevin Venegas and Justin Davis are reportedly set to make the jump with the team, giving Heath some familiar faces outside of the precious spine.
There’s also Christian Ramirez, the Loons’ star forward who’s future remains up in the air. In August, Ramirez told SBI that his uncertain future was a motivating factor, adding that he was unsure of where he would play in 2017.
Through three seasons with Minnesota United, Ramirez fired 51 goals, a number that certainly catches the eye of Heath. A former striker himself, Heath takes pride in working with talented forwards, including Larin and Dom Dwyer, the latter of whom developed under Heath during Orlando City’s USL days. Heath says he’s spoken with Ramirez and gotten “a really good vibe” from the 25-year-old forward, who the club continues to have discussions with.
“He’s probably scored the most goals in all of North American over the last few years. That isn’t an accident, and that’s not luck,” Heath said. “The kid knows where the goal is. I’d love the opportunity to work with him. You look at the progression of the players I’ve worked with, like Cyle Larin, and I think I can help Christian get to the next level. We’re hopeful and the club is working hard to tie him up and take the next step with us.”
For the next several months, Heath and Minnesota United will make a mad dash towards MLS. There’s a roster to build, one that is admittedly already a bit behind schedule.
However, from the opening game, Heath wants his players to know they can compete. He’s been through this, seen this before, from the exhilarating highs to the debilitating lows. There will certainly be challenges, and Heath has lived them, making him the first to admit it.
Minnesota United, Heath says, is a team that can beat any MLS team in a one-off game. They’ve competed in the U.S. Open Cup, taken on MLS foes, even if the results have never been quite there. However, there are no one-off games anymore, just what Heath calls a “continual grind”. It’s taxing and trying, but one that the Loons need to be ready for.
Heath says his message to his team is that they can compete with the very best, each and every game. From there, the results will come and, with it, the success that many in Minnesota want to see. But, until then, it’s a process, one that Heath is glad to be a part of. It’s one he feels like he was made for, as he looks to turn Minnesota United from expansion side to perennial contender.
“I look back at some of the games (with Orlando City) and I feel proud of some of the stuff we did,” he added. “Can we do it again? Can we replicate that and go even better? Can we make the playoffs? We know it’s ridiculously difficult, because it shows that and the stats show that, but that has to be the aim.
‘From there, can we progress? Can we move on and get better and stronger and compete to where people say, ‘They may be a contender to go all the way’? That has to be the long-term aim. I understand it won’t be like that from the first day, but that’s the project and the process and what we’re trying to achieve.”