Minnesota United unveil new coach: British-born Heath also led MLS startup club Orlando City
GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- Minnesota United circled in on six candidates to fill their head coaching position over the past month. The group included some coaches with Major League Soccer experience, some with international backgrounds, plus last ye...
GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - Minnesota United circled in on six candidates to fill their head coaching position over the past month. The group included some coaches with Major League Soccer experience, some with international backgrounds, plus last year’s Loons coach Carl Craig.
Adrian Heath excelled in all the club’s criterion and rose to the top of the list. He was announced Tuesday as the coach to lead the expansion franchise into its debut season in MLS in 2017.
The club was impressed with Heath’s resume as coach of Orlando City, where he led the Lions from the lower-level United Soccer League to a near playoff appearance in their debut MLS season in 2015. They respected his understanding and navigation of MLS’ complicated rules, his playing history with storied clubs in his native England and his close relationships with fans.
“He’s the right fit at the right time,” United owner Bill McGuire told the Pioneer Press.
When he was fired by Orlando with a 4-4-8 record in July, Heath said he had opportunities to coach in his homeland but “wanted to stay and prove myself in this country.”
In the news conference at the club’s headquarters, Heath thanked United’s braintrust of McGuire, team president Nick Rogers, sporting director Manny Lagos and director of player personnel Amos Magee for a second chance in MLS.
“The last couple of weeks have been a long time waiting for this particular day to arrive,” Heath said. “I’m just so proud and pleased that they’ve decided I’m the guy that they want to take this forward.”
Heath’s Orlando City team outperformed many prior expansion clubs, missing the playoffs by five points in 2015 and going 16-18-16 overall in 1 1/2 seasons.
Heath’s dismissal came at the halfway point of a three-year plan for the expansion franchise. Some factors believed to contribute to his ouster were disagreements with management about personnel decisions and the strong influence of star Brazilian player Kaka.
“If there is one disappointment in my time in Orlando, it’s how we finished,” Heath said.
Heath said the nascent Loons are embarking on a bumpy road ahead as an expansion team, and he has a multi-year contract to navigate it.
“We are going to have to keep growing, but I saw enough in the last 18 months down in Orlando that we can put a team together to compete from day one in Minnesota,” Heath said. “That has to be the aim.”
Heath and Lagos first met when Heath coached the Austin (Texas) Aztex in 2008 and Lagos coached the Minnesota Thunder, which became the Stars in 2010 and then United in 2013. They rubbed elbows at USL combines and watched MLS from the outside looking in.
“You can’t get in, you can’t get a cup of tea,” Heath said in an English accent.
Heath and Lagos stayed in touch over the years and that contact ramped up after Aug. 19, when United was announced as an MLS expansion franchise to come on board when the season begins this March. Heath had been there, done that.
“He would ring me regularly (asking), ‘How did you deal with this? How did you deal with that?’ ” Heath said.
Lagos said the club went through an “exhaustive” search, and said Craig remains a candidate for a new role within the club. Craig, who was an assistant under Lagos since 2010, went 11-13-8 in the North American Soccer League last season and missed the playoffs by seven points.
Craig told the Pioneer Press days after the season ended that he would like to remain with United in any capacity. “I’ve been here for 22 years - this is (my) hometown,” Craig said in his Geordie accent. “This is (my) hometown club.”
Lagos responded, “(We’ll) really talk about what type of environment Adrian needs to be successful and certainly have somebody in Carl that, I think, should be involved in that discussion.”
But in the end, Heath rose to the top of all candidates.
“Adrian’s acumen as a coach is No. 1,” Lagos said. “He’s going to have the ability to put an outstanding team on the field and a competitive team, but then there are other pieces of it, too.”
Heath grew up with a working class background in Newcastle-under-Lyme in England and was a fan of Stoke City. He started his professional playing career with Stoke and starred with Everton before playing for Espanyol in Spain and then returning to England to play for Manchester City and Burnley.
Heath, 55, began coaching in 1996, with the first 11 years in England with Burnley, Sheffield United and Coventry City. He came to America in 2008 and was credited with helping build a strong soccer culture in Orlando.
Heath has been known to have unvarnished comments and has been hit with fines from MLS for views that run counter to the company line.
“I think we have an obligation in growing the game by being a part of the game,” Heath said. “If that means me going out and speaking and having Q&As with supporters clubs or going to meet people that we are trying to bring into the game, I see that as part and parcel, and that will never change. That’s part of my DNA.”