Adrian Heath stuck with Orlando City through six seasons in U.S. soccer’s lower tiers–including two when the organization was based in Austin, Texas–and rejected multiple offers to coach in MLS with other clubs.
Now, Orlando City is sticking with Heath. On Friday, the MLS expansion franchise will announce a contract extension that will cover Heath through the 2017 season. His current deal was set to expire next winter.
“We’ve been talking about it for a while and I’m just pleased that we’re in this final stage of this sort of pipe dream we had seven years ago and now I’m going to get to see it through,” Heath told SI.com. “There were a few opportunities along the way to move but I’ve always been about the big picture, how much work and how much time and effort we’ve put in to get to this stage ... The club has fulfilled everything that we wanted to do to get where we are and it just makes sense for me now to sign a new deal and hopefully build from here and hit the ground running in MLS.”
Heath’s minor league record is second to none. During Orlando City’s four years in Florida it won two USL Pro championships and three Commissioner's Cups, the third-tier league’s Supporters' Shield equivalent. Orlando’s overall record of 80-18-24 is unmatched during that span and includes a pair of U.S. Open Cup victories over MLS opposition.
Those results, along with numerous friendlies, years spent studying the league and a storied background in the game, leave Heath, 53, confident he’s earned the extension even though he’s never managed an MLS match.
“I probably have more experience then most coaches in the MLS. I worked in the Premier League. I worked in the Championship. I’ve been here for seven years now and if I don’t know what’s going on in the MLS I probably shouldn’t have the job,” he said. “If I was coming in cold I think it would be justified to say it’s a gamble. But in seven years we’ve probably had the best part of 10-12 games against MLS opposition, played preseason every year against them. I’m pretty diligent in my job. I watch every game in the MLS. I’ve put my work in and bided my time and built my apprenticeship and now I think it’s time to move to the next level, certainly as a club but in my own mind as well.”
Heath heads a staff that includes former San Jose Earthquakes head coach Mark Watson, USL veteran Ian Fuller and goalkeeper coach Marcos Machado, who played professionally in Brazil and Portugal.
“Adrian has been an integral part of the club since day one and has been key to our success both on and off the field,” City president Phil Rawlins said in a statement. “His track record with us has been remarkable, and we believe that Adrian as our head coach will provide us the best chance of being competitive in MLS.”
Orlando currently has nine players on its roster, including Brazilian playmaker Kaká and Heath’s 18-year-old son, Harrison, a midfielder. Heath and GM Paul McDonough will fill out the rest of the squad primarily through next month’s expansion draft and January’s college draft.
Heath said he’s already run through four expansion draft simulations and that City “is as prepared as we can be.” He also said that the club is “actively in negotiations with maybe three players outside the MLS.” He wouldn't confirm whether one of those players is Brek Shea, who had nothing but praise for Heath and the club following a summer training stint in Florida. Shea is currently on loan to Birmingham City from Stoke City, where Rawlins was a long-time member of the board of directors.
“We’re very confident that come the end of this year we’ll have a squad that’s capable,” Heath said.
Hailing from a town just outside Stoke-on-Trent, Heath enjoyed an 18-year pro career that began with his hometown Potters and featured stops at Everton, Espanyol, Manchester City and Burnley. The midfielder won two Football League titles and an FA Cup with the Toffees and scored 151 goals in 703 senior appearances before entering coaching. He then worked at Burnley, Sheffield United and Coventry City, among others, before starting his American adventure in Austin in 2008.