The subject: Former Burnley, Everton and Stoke City midfielder Adrian Heath left a successful coaching career in the English leagues to join USL-1 expansion side Austin Aztex in 2008. His decision paid off when the Aztex relocated to Orlando City two years later and started along the path that ultimately earned the club a spot in MLS next year.
Heath and his players have a lot of work to do before the transition takes place, though. The former England under-21 international took a few minutes after Orlando City’s first training session of the new season to explain how he and his club have reached this point.
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It’s been a long, strange journey since you landed in the United States, hasn’t it?
Heath: “I always tell the story that when I went home and said to my wife for the first time that it looks like we’re going to go to America. She said, ‘Oh, great. What’s the team called?’ ‘Well, we don’t really have a name.’ My son asked what color was the strip. We didn’t have a color, we didn’t have a strip, we didn’t have a name.
We’ve come a long way since then. There’s been a lot of hard work. [Orlando City president] Phil Rawlins and the ownership group have been great. All we’ve tried to do is be competitive on the field, which is what we’ve done.
Obviously, the trick for us was the move here to Orlando. It’s been unbelievable. The people have been incredible. Journalists, newspapers, TV, whatever, they’ve all supported us. And, more importantly, the people have. We have to do well on the field, but it’s been a great ride so far.”
Heath said he spurned three opportunities over the years to join the likes of Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes in MLS.
You had a chance to jump to MLS with Toronto FC in October 2012. Why did you decide to stay?
Heath: “Unbeknownst to a lot of people, I’ve had three opportunities to go to a MLS club since I’ve been here. It was always the case of when it was going to be right. The ownership have been aware of it all along. Had this not happened for us now, maybe my decision might have been different.
But I’ve always had a great belief in what we’re trying to achieve here. I like the people I work with. I like the people I work for. They let me get on and do the football side of this club, which I think is a huge thing. I don’t get any interference. The football side is mine. I let them do all of the other hard stuff, the money, the sponsorship and generating the interest in the club. All I concentrate on is the players and the budget with that.
That was really the biggest decision: having control of what I do. I think it’s one of the things in America that is a little bit different. That all-encompassing manager is something that we grow up with in Europe. It’s changing. And I know managing the salary cap for us next year and all of the nuances of the league rules is going to be important. That’s why we brought [vice president of soccer operations] Paul McDonough on. That’s something he will have to deal with, but we’re all excited and we’re looking forward to it.”
How important is the foundation you’ve built here as you look to 2014 and beyond?
Heath: “I think that’s been huge for us. It’s funny: Ian Fuller, my assistant, said to me this morning it’s a long way from Deltona. When we first arrived, we were training another 10-15 miles up the road with maybe eight people, no infrastructure, no staff.
Now we’re here this morning and we’ve got physios, kit men, masseurs, people bringing the drinks on. The whole professionalism and the infrastructure has grown tenfold. That’s going to have to keep moving on as well.”
Orlando City faces a difficult task in 2014: it must remain competitive in USL PRO and build its squad for MLS at the same time.
How do you balance the need to be competitive this year in USL PRO with building the MLS squad for 2015?
Heath: “That’s going to be the secret. If you look at the results Seattle, Portland, and Montréal had, they weren’t the best. It actually affected them. I spoke to people in those clubs. They told me about the expectations. People want to go to MLS with you and maybe halfway through the year, they realize maybe they aren’t going to do that. That’s going to be tough.
As I’ve said before, this league – the USL – has been very good to us. We’re going to treat it with the respect it deserves. The expectations will be the same. We want to win the regular season. We want to win the playoffs. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.”
It sounds like the long journey that started in Austin is still going and there is still a lot left to do, then.
Heath: “We’ve worked really, really hard. I think this is the beginning. We’ve had the intro. Now the beginning’s right around the corner. We’ve made no bones about it: we want to be competitive from day one. And that’s the aim.”