BigShot Q&A: Orlando City SC Manager – Adrian Heath

Orlando City SC Manager Adrian Heath discusses MLS expansion, USL-NASL ties, coaching & USA soccer development
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Adrian Heath - Manager of Orlando City SC (USL PRO)

Adrian Heath is an English head coach currently at the helm of Orlando City SC which he guided to the USL PRO title last season. Prior to coaching, Heath played for Manchester City, Everton, Espanyol, Aston Villa and others as well as being on the English U-21 Men’s National Team. Heath managed Burnley, Sheffield United, Coventry City and the Austin Aztex, before the team moved to Orlando.

You’ve coached in Austin and Orlando. Which city do you prefer personally?

AH: Well I mean they’re a little bit different in terms of the lifestyle and everything, it’s a lot different obviously in terms of the cities themselves. You can’t compare. Austin and Orlando are completely different vibes and [give] a different feel. They’re both fantastic places in their own way. They’re both very different, but I like them enormously both.

Does Orlando have more followers of the sport than Austin?

AH: I think one of the reasons that we arrived in Orlando was that we thought we had a better chance of making an MLS franchise here in Orlando. The fact of the matter is that there’s not soccer team in MLS from [Washington, D.C.,] down so there’s [an] awful big area, a big sway of the country, that’s not got a team. And that’s one of the reasons that we moved the team down to Orlando. We felt this market would be better over the long course.

Does Austin have potential to be a soccer city one day?

AH: The problem you have in Austin is you’ve already got F.C. Dallas and you’ve also got Houston Dynamo on your door step. So it’d be very surprising if they put three teams in the one state. It’s very difficult. The other major thing about Austin is that you know obviously the University of Texas. With an incredibly … institutionalized university, you’re always going to be in the shadow of something.

As a player did you ever think you’d end up coaching in the USA? Was it ever a goal to live here?

AH: In the early part, you wouldn’t have thought so. But over the years, being with the teams I was with, Everton, Aston Villa and Conventry City and Sunderland, ya know, we’d come out here for postseason or preseason. And obviously I’ve seen the growth of the game over the last 20 years culminating in what you see today is a thriving league in the MLS. And I’m always, always enjoying coming to the States and obviously at one stage I thought I would live here. I never anticipated I’d be working here, in soccer, in hopefully an MLS market. That’s the aim now. I see huge growth in the game, I think the game is going to get bigger and stronger and I wanted to be a part of that.

In its first season, Orlando won the USL PRO (Division 3) Championship. How was this accomplished so quickly?

AH: We think we run a very good organization from top to bottom. Not only do we think we have a very, very good team of players, but we think we have a very good staff. And we think we got a very good front office as well. Ya know, obviously, we weren’t coming here completely new. We were bringing some elements of the team from Austin and obviously I knew the league as well, which is a huge, huge help. As I look back now, it’s been an absolutely great first year and the fact is of the matter is that we have to build on that. We have to go again now. And we are very, very confident we can do it again.

Is there any added pressure in this upcoming season after a championship run?

AH: There’s always that pressure, but the simple fact is the people, obviously when you’re the champions, want to knock you off your pedestal or build a little target on your back. Obviously we feel we’re more than ready to confront that challenge. We know it’s not going to be easy, but we’re ready for it.

Have you done scouting of the other USL PRO clubs for next season? Who looks the strongest?

AH: I think two or three clubs have upgraded. I expect LA Blues to be better. I think Richmond again will be strong. I actually expect Charleston Battery to be better this year. I think Antigua will also be better. So, three or four of the teams have upgraded. I can say the fact that obviously we’re going to have a strong challenge this year.

What are your expectations for Orlando City SC on-field this season?

AH: The expectations are the same they’ve always been – we’ve got to win the league, we’ve got to win the regular season and then we have got to win the playoffs. And then hopefully we have a good run in the Cup as well, in the [U.S.] Open Cup. We always say to the players, every game we are involved in, every competition we are into, we have to go in with the sole purpose of trying to do as well as we can. And if that means having the expectations level of winning the competition, then that’s what it takes.

Do you put more emphasis on the US Open Cup matches than league matches due to being in a lower division?

AH: First and foremost, we’re obviously aware the fact that if you get through the first couple of rounds, that usually brings an MLS team. And we’ve done that over the last two-to-three years and we’ve always made them good character battles when we’ve played the Dynamo or we’ve played Dallas. And we always know that every game is important. Every game that we play, I expect us to compete and I expect us to be very, very competitive and hopefully we win the game.

Which club does Orlando consider to be its main rival? Do you feel rivalries and derbies are important for general soccer growth in America?

AH: Yeah, I do. You only have to look at the Pacific Northwest to see the growth in the game with the rivalries between Portland and Seattle and Vancouver. Obviously where we are geographically … it’d be great if we were playing maybe against Tampa or Ft. Lauderdale. Unfortunately we’re not, so we have to get on it. Obviously, Charleston Battery … are one of the biggest clubs in our division. So they’re somewhat of a team that we’ve realized that every time we play them it’s going to be very, very competitive. I think for the growth of the sport in general that is something we have to work really, really hard on.

Though Miami/Ft Lauderdale and Tampa are in the rival NASL, will you try to play them in friendlies at some point to grow the sport in Florida as a whole?

AH: We’ve asked the question several of times and unfortunately they declined the offer. We tried it last year to get a couple between ourselves and Tampa, not so much Ft. Lauderdale. Unfortunately, they didn’t want to play it, which is disappointing because obviously we think would bring a great crowd.

How much say do you have as a coach in your friendly opponents?

AH: Most of the ones that we have are down to me, certainly preseason. In terms of bringing in other teams in and around the area, whether it be USSF, UCF … we have tried definitely to get games. This year, if we could have played Tampa, we could have played Ft. Lauderdale, we would have willing played them and we think we would have gotten a really great crowd for them. They wouldn’t play us and that’s something that we have to live with and move on from.

Have you seen soccer grow in America since being with the Aztex to now leading Orlando?

AH: Even in four years, I think the growth of the game has been unbelievable. All of a sudden you’ve seen Portland leave our league, you’ve seen Vancouver leave our league, you’ve seen Seattle leave our league. That’s had a huge impact on the last stage of the game in this country. They’re three of the most supported clubs in the U.S. and they were in our league for years and years. It proves you can move out of our league and be successful. I think the growth of soccer specific stadiums … I think that’s been the great part of the game in the growth of these clubs. And seeing teams play in the CONCACAF games … and you don’t know which way the game’s going to go. The fact the game is evolving and getting better has been, for me, best part the past three or four years.

Why is there such a large British ex-pat community in Orlando? Has their love for the game and how the club helped move the needle for Orlando SC, from other clubs at the Division 3 level? Do they support the club like they did when they lived in the UK?

AH: Definitely. I think the fact that the district here is so diverse with the British influence or whether it [is] the Spanish influence, those countries that we’ve mentioned, whether it be the European-based countries, or South America, Central America, football/soccer is the number one sport in their country. It’s no surprise to me … that we’ve had good crowds. Ultimately, this their first love, this is their game, this they’ve been brought up with. I expect that to carry on and get better.

You played in England and Spain, how would you describe the difference in styles of play between the two nations then and now?

AH: There’s been a whole shift in the approach to the game in England due to the influence, whether it be from Arsene Wenger with his French influence, or whether it be from Benetiz and Mourinho from Spain or Portugal. The game has evolved and is certainly better now, certainly more technical than it was 20 years. I think the one element that Spain has developed – they’ve always been technically gifted – and they’ve now got a better structure and physically are more capable of matching teams than they were 15 years ago. They’ve suddenly taken it on another level, their retention of the ball and composure on the ball. Whether it be Barcelona or whether it be Real Madrid, or the Spanish national team teams, have taken it to another level. They’ve played the game the way the game was meant to be played and it will only continue.

What type of style of play would you say you emphasize?

AH: We always emphasize we like to play like Barcelona with a possession game or I love watching Arsenal when they’re at their best. Teams that have played us mentioned those teams. I don’t for one minute think we’re as good as those teams, but obviously we’re trying to play in the right way with very possession-orientated game to try and keep the ball, we try and move teams around. When we play the MLS teams and when we play the English teams that came over in preseason, everybody would like the way that we played and the fact that we can compete with them. I know that Newcastle United couldn’t be more complimentary in the way that they played. Yeah we won the game, and it was preseason for them, but we were outstanding on the day and it was great football that we played as well.

Do you have to coach an American club differently than say you would in England? What are some of those differences?

AH: I think one of the differences comes in the nature in sports in America and coaches in general in America get a little bit more time to balance, structure and develop a way of playing. In Europe, now and South America, the demands of the coach are instant. You have to play a team in a few days, you have to win games and unfortunately you do not have the time you’d wish to develop a way of playing. In England and Central America, winning today is the most important thing.

In terms of soccer development, what does soccer in The States need to change in order to reach its potential?

AH: It’s certainly helped over the last few years with the development with an academy and structure. More and more players are migrating to professional clubs away from youth clubs dominating the structure, which was a long-term bad plan for the game. I think the fact that more and more professional people are getting at the players more and more will help. We’ll eventually have to get to the stage where more and more players go professional earlier rather than going to college. The one big area that I think is a huge area that somehow needs to addressed, and I haven’t lived in the States long enough to answer, but certainly going to college is not conducive to producing top-class players. That four years situation where you have to play three-to-four months a year is not good enough.

Do you feel like you are a part of growing the game in the USA?

AH: I do. I think one of the reasons is … I believe in the game in the States, I believe in the growth of the game, I believe what we’re trying to do. And if I can somehow help the situation with what I bring to the table, then so be it. In terms of the game, the game’s still relatively young.

Is part of the job of being a coach in the USA, include being a salesman for the game?

AH: I think so, certainly when you are trying to convince people the game is growing. I think it’s getting easier to do that now. I just think that more and more British teams and European teams come to the states, whether preseason or postseason, and realize the game is getting very, very good. And I’m very much a part of the sales team to convince people of that.

What are your thoughts on Jurgen Klinsmann as the US Men’s National Team coach?

AH: I think that he understands the way the game should be. I think he understands the changes that need to be. I think Bob Bradley was top of the line, I thought Bob did a very, very good job. But now Jurgen’s got the task of taking it to the next level. And the next level for me is going to be the situation with a lot of the young players. Have we got a next generation ready to compete at the top level?

Have you conversed or have a dialogue with him?

AH: I haven’t spoken to him since he’s been here, our paths haven’t crossed. But listening to everything he says, reading what he writes, he obviously he knows what needs to be done and hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to do it.

What tips for Klinsmann in his role, would they be?

AH: Nah, I think Jurgen knows what he’s doing. I think he seems very astute, a very clever man.

Which is a harder position, the head coach of the USA or England?

AH: I think obviously anybody from Europe will tell you that the English National Team job is probably the most high-pressured jobs in the world … Everybody thinks they know more than the national team manager, so it’s not an easy job to have. I think the majority of the United States people understand that they are in a cycle and they have to improve gradually and they do a very good job with it.

Orlando SC recently expanded its youth soccer pyramid, talk about that and what changes we can expect in the short and long term?

AH: The short term is obviously to get everyone on the same page in terms of development, try and get a structure where every age group knows what’s expected of their coach. I think one of the problems at times is it becomes not uncommon; it becomes individual to decide what they’re going to do. And that can’t happen. We have to have a strict policy and structure of developing the player in a certain way and now we have to do it the same way with every kid. It shouldn’t change because the coach changes. The long-term aim is obviously to get players, who either go to college or who don’t get a college, ready to play for the first team. We’ve got an opportunity where kids that are six or seven can be our program and in our pyramid and hopefully have a dream of coming to playing for us in MLS.

Would you rather buy a perfect player for your system or develop one locally from your academy over time?

AH: I think everybody would answer the same. Any development system is seeing somebody you’ve seen for seven, eight years … come through and that’s what I did in England. That has to be the dream of every developmental club.

Can modern coaches afford to be patient in their positions with development or is the nature of the position with immediate results eliminating a lot of that?

AH: That comes down to a club policy. Are you a club that has to win? And if you do, well then you might make more. But the bottom club for every club is, let’s get a structure in place and don’t let the first team results dictate what goes on with what happens.

Do you watch more MLS or English Premier League in your spare time?

AH: Everything. I watch all of it. It’s the nature of my job. I watch, over the course of a week, I’ll eventually get around to watching all the MLS games online and over the weekend I’ll watch English Premier League games. That’s the way you learn, by watching and taking notes.

If Orlando SC was an MLS club, which club would it be most like?

AH: Salt Lake. Real Salt Lake. I think they run a very good franchise. They play arguably the best football in the MLS. They run the club how a club should be run. I would very much think that when we become an MLS club that we will run the club with them in mind as best we can.

What MLS club would you consider the model American soccer club?

AH: I think Real Salt Lake run a great franchise. They play really good football, they have the influence of one or two Hispanic players, they use the strength of the American guys, [and] they pretty much got all the basics. I think that if we were going to MLS, that’s the way we’d try to run our club.

After coaching in the USL for a few seasons, what are your opinions of the league and the organization? What would you improve?

AH: The incredible thing for our league is obviously geographically. The country is huge and it can possess challenges for clubs outside the MLS, in terms of financially, travel situation. I would love the USL and the NASL to be under one umbrella; I think that would be a huge benefit for the game. I don’t know if that can happen, but I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t. I think the MLS should get a grip outside of their league and put them under their umbrella. We should all be under one umbrella and we should have a league beneath the MLS and the policy dictates to run the MLS. 

After winning a championship, as an Englishman is it hard to swallow that you’re squad won’t be competing in the higher/2nd division this upcoming season? Would you like to see promotion/relegation in American soccer one day?

AH: Ultimately I think that would be fantastic. Whether we see that happen, I’m not sure because of the nature of sports in America. I’d like to see everything under one umbrella and have the MLS run all football in America. So everything is standard practice across all three positions.

It is often said that British coaches come to the USA and don’t embrace the Latino population and that style of play, often leaning to a more athletic and aggressive approach. Would you agree with that assessment?

AH: No, not really. Like I’ve said all along, most coaches I know pick the best. I don’t care about color of player, I don’t care where he’s from, I don’t care if he’s English, Chinese, South American, to me the best players will play. I don’t look at people past football, I look at their football ability. I think most coaches will just actually pick the best players.

Would you say your coaching has changed American soccer or American soccer has changed the way you’ve coached?

AH: No, I think that if you speak to any of my players, I’ve brought a way of playing that they’ve never played before.

A portion of MLS preseason was located in Orlando; besides the USL PRO championship this was the first chance by lots of fans in North America to see your Orlando SC side. Do you think you impressed some new fans and MLS coaches and staff?

AH: Yeah I do. The one thing we’ve always said is we’re very respectful of and we always play MLS teams whenever we can. We think that’s the only way to get better. I honestly think our football exceeds the level we play at sometimes.

Don Garber was in Orlando recently to talk to club administrators and local politicians about the possibility of Orlando joining MLS one day. Is this a goal of yours? Do you foresee that happening in the future? Would Orlando embrace the league?

AH: We would certainly embrace the league. We think we have enough knowledge with our front office and coaching staff to make an influence on the game. I honestly believe the 24th team or the 25th; Orlando will be in the MLS.

Where do you think you’ll be in 10 years?

AH: Where I’m going to be in 10 years, I’m not for sure. I think the near future; the future now is very much of me helping me grow this franchise. And obviously if the MLS comes around in the next couple of years, I would love to be, and I think I will be, head coaching in Orlando. I honestly think if we get an MLS franchise, we will become, in a very short time, we will become one of the top franchises in North America.

What’s your dream coaching position?

AH: My dream coaching position, I think … a lot of people know what that is with me obviously the fact that I played so long for Everton Football Club. In a perfect world, that would be the job that I think I would manage. Is that going to happen? Very unlikely, but we can all dream about it. I’m so preoccupied with building something here, I’m very happy where I am, I’m very happy with the job that I have. I’m really, really, really optimistic of what we can achieve in the near future.

What is the best thing about coaching in the USA?

AH: The greatest thing about coaching is being with the boys you’ve taken under your wing, who have potential, and working with them diligently over a year, two years, and seeing all that potential realized. I love the fact that we have football players in the MLS in the last few years. You’re trying to help people get better and if I can do that and assure a little way for these people [to] realize their dreams, then that makes it all worthwhile.


UMass Amherst
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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.