Perfect Match

Adrian Heath brings the competitive fire he had as a player to his role as coach of Orlando City.



Heath before a playoff game in 2014. Of soccer in the U.S. he says: “It’s getting bigger and better by the day.”

Roberto Gonzalez

Adrian Heath was sitting in a pub back home in England a couple of years ago when he uttered a word that hushed the room. “You know that typical scene in a film, when the music stops and every head turns,” Heath says. “That’s what it was like. Everybody stopped talking and looked straight at me.” All because of one word he dared to say. One American word uttered in a British pub.

Soccer.

You’d have thought Heath had called the queen a trollop or maligned the music of the Beatles.

Soccer?

Nobody in Britain, much less the rest of the world outside the United States, calls football “soccer.’’

Heath smiles at the memory. He is a former top, ahem, football player in England, respected, a bit of a legend. “The thought of me using the word ‘soccer’ is blasphemous,” he says, still grinning. 

But he has gotten used to it. In 2008, when Heath came to America to coach soccer in Austin, Texas, in the second-tier United Soccer Leagues, his young son Harrison was asked if he liked playing football. 

“I love football,” Harrison replied.

Again, Adrian Heath smiles at the memory.

“They put a helmet on his head,” he says. “My son was asking, ‘What kind of football is this?’”

Father and son learned quickly.

“When you say football in the United States, and especially in Texas, it obviously means only one thing,” Heath says. “There is only one kind of football here.”

So soccer it is, and Heath is not only proud to call it that—even in a pub back in Britain—he is proud to be coaching it in America, seeing its growth and being a part of it. That team in Austin? It moved to Central Florida in the fall of 2010, becoming Orlando City Soccer Club, and has enjoyed enormous success along the way. In fact, the team has been so successful that it is now going big time with its first season in Major League Soccer—the sport’s highest rung in the United States. Heath has been there for the whole ride. If you dust Orlando City’s impressive résumé that shows its rapid rise from a fledgling minor league club to a major league upstart, you’ll find Adrian Heath’s fingerprints everywhere.

This season, the team will play in the revamped Citrus Bowl. In 2016, it will move to a new, 20,000-seat, $110 million stadium near the Amway Center; and when it does, fans will notice a stadium with seats pitched steeply and positioned close to the field. Why? Because Heath sat in on every meeting concerning the stadium, practically insisting that the fans be on top of the action, so that the players can feel their support, which he knows is the lifeblood of any team. In the rest of the world, rabid support for soccer is well-established. In the United States, it’s still growing. Heath has seen that growth and helped nurture it.

“People used to ask, ‘When do you think the game will take off in the United States?’ And I say, ‘The game has taken off.’ This isn’t a case of: Is it going to succeed? It’s a case of: How big is it going to get? Because it’s getting bigger and better by the day.”

As Heath talks, sitting in Orlando City’s offices on East South Street, he jerks his thumb toward downtown Orlando. He mentions the World Cup from last summer and how he ventured downtown to enjoy the atmosphere with the masses. He was overwhelmed by what he saw—an estimated 30,000 fans who turned out for a watch party in Wall Street Plaza. 

“If you had been there when the World Cup was going on, you could have been in any city in the world and not known the difference. If you had said that to someone 15, 20 years ago, they’d have said you were crazy. But last summer you could’ve cut the atmosphere with a knife. It was fantastic! That was no different for me than going and watching a game in Liverpool.”

Heath the player, on a British soccer card from the 1990-91 season. 

Liverpool happens to be about an hour away from where Heath was born in England, where he grew up playing any sport that was in season, and excelling at them all—but particularly at soccer. And while Heath, 54, grew up there, he didn’t grow much. Throughout his playing career he was listed—perhaps a bit generously—at 5-foot-6. His nickname, which has followed him around since he was 6 years old, when a friend commented that he was only about an inch high, is Inchy. Heath always played big, though, with an unparalleled passion. It’s now the way he coaches.

Growing up in England, Luke Boden, who has been with Orlando City since 2011, knew well the legend of Adrian Heath. “As a player, he was known for having a winning mentality, someone who gave his all,” Boden, 26, says. “He’s transferred that to coaching. Everything is high tempo. If you aren’t giving 100 percent, he’s all over you. He has a good eye for talent, and he knows how to get the most out of players. He also tells us all the time that playing professionally and doing something you love is an honor. Sometimes we’ll get done with our training sessions at about 12:30 p.m., and he’ll tell us, ‘It must be nice to have a job where you’re done by 12:30.’ He gets in our heads like that, and then you start thinking, ‘Why can’t I do more? Why can’t I stay and work from 9 to 2 or 9 to 3?’”

Again, it was the type of player Heath was, an overachiever. His parents divorced when he was young, and he spent a lot of time with his grandparents. “My grandfather influenced a lot of my life,” he says. “He was a great guy. He made us all appreciate what we had. I remember him saying to me one day: ‘If you’re going to be a road sweeper, make sure you’re the best road sweeper that there’s ever been.’ That stuck with me.”

So did the question of whether he was big enough to play pro soccer. When he was a young player coming up, he recalled overhearing one of the great players whom he looked up to, a fellow by the name of John Ritchie, say about him, “Yeah, he’s very talented. But he’s going to be too small.” About eight years later, when Heath was playing for Stoke City and scored two goals and Ritchie, retired now, was there to present him the Man of the Match award, Heath told him, “Not bad for a player who was going to be too small.”

He chuckles.

“Eight years later and I’ve still got it in my mind,” he says. “I’m sure John Ritchie had no idea what I was talking about. But that was the kind of competitive fire I had.”

And still has. He segued that fire to coaching and was starting to make a career of it in Britain, when he heard that Phil Rawlins, a self-made millionaire, was looking to start a team in the United States. Rawlins, who was actually in the stands at the first professional game Heath played in for Stoke City, was all-in on starting a team in America, having sold his consulting business to raise the cash. By then, Rawlins and Heath, who met through mutual friends, had developed their own friendly relationship.

“At the very genesis of this idea, of starting a football club in the United States, I was back home for Christmas and at a pub,’’ Rawlins says. “Adrian had heard about my plans and, in a very nice way, pinned me into a corner, and for an hour he talked my ear off whilst he told me why he should be the manager. I was pretty blown away that he’d even be interested, because I always saw his future as a manager being in England. But Adrian was very persistent. He believed in the sport in America.”

Heath sold Rawlins on his interest, but could he sell his family?

“I remember going home and explaining the situation to my wife, asking her what she thought about going to America. When I think back on it, I don’t think I was very convincing.” Heath’s exchange with his wife, Jane, went like this:

Jane: “What’s the team called?”

Adrian: “We haven’t got a name.”

Jane: “Where are you going to play?”

Adrian: “We haven’t got a stadium.”

Jane: “Where are you going to train?”

Adrian: “Well, we haven’t got a training ground.”

At this point, Heath recalls, son Harrison piped up.

Harrison: “What colors are you playing?”

Adrian: “We haven’t got any colors.”

But Heath convinced his wife and son that the United States was the place to be.

“The thing for me,” Heath says, reflective, his eyebrows burrowing into his forehead, “is doing something you rarely get the opportunity to do, which is building a club from the very bottom, with nothing. All those things my wife and son were asking, it’s true. We didn’t have any of those things. So to have a hand in everything we’ve done to this point, I take a lot of pride in what we’ve achieved in seven years.”

Action during a playoff game last year. Under Heath’s guidance, Orlando City had the best record through its first 100 games (66-12-22) of any team in U.S. pro soccer history.

Here is how far they’ve come in that time. When Heath arrived in America to coach soccer in Austin, the FIFA World Player of the Year was a young Brazilian named Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known by the kind of one-word moniker often ascribed to superstars—Kaká. Today, with the Texas club now an MLS team in Orlando, Kaká is on its roster. As a footnote, Harrison Heath, who turns 19 on March 3, is also on the roster. Obviously, though, it is Kaká, 32, who has generated an extra current of excitement.

“No way, seven years ago when I arrived in the United States, did I think I would get an opportunity to work with one of the great players of the modern generation,” Adrian Heath says. “It’s incredible that not only are we, seven years later, on the threshold of going to the MLS, but the guy who was the number-one player in the world is going to play for us. I’m really excited.”

There was some help in making that happen. As Orlando City continued to have success—eventually winning the regular season three times and the USL Pro championship twice—it also developed an interest in the MLS. But in order to play with the big boys, it was going to need an owner with big bucks. That’s when Flávio Augusto da Silva, a Brazilian and friend of Kaká, stepped in with the $75 million required to establish an MLS franchise. Augusto de Silva is now Orlando City’s chairman and majority owner, with Rawlins happily sliding into his role as founder and president. As for Heath, he’s equally happy coaching the club. And Orlando City is happy to have him. In the USL, with its salary cap and efforts to instill parity, Orlando City consistently separated itself from the pack. Rawlins points to Heath as the reason.

“I think it comes down to a few things,” Rawlins says. “Our attacking style of play, our philosophy, it all comes from Adrian’s coaching. Adrian has always had a very good eye for players, too. He’ll find that player who has been overlooked or fallen on hard times and bring them in and bring them to peak form. And the other thing, I think, with Adrian is that everybody who has played for him loves playing for him. They enjoy the work, the practice, the training. He creates a strong team work ethic. He demands a lot of them; he demands perfection. He helps them better themselves every day. He wants them to grow and get better, and they thrive on that. The team wants to win for him.”

Heath is flanked by his son Harrison (left) and Kaká at the team’s first MLS practice session in January.

And they have. Now the Lions have the opportunity to do so on soccer’s biggest stage in America, a stage that, in Orlando, is growing bigger by the day. In 2008, it was only Heath and Rawlins when this journey began in Texas—football country that taught them to adopt the word “soccer.” Now Orlando City has 60 full-time employees. Referring to his office, Heath shakes his head and says, “When we started this, we started in an office this size. That’s it. One office room that we shared.” He spreads his arms as he looks out at Orlando City’s spacious, sprawling and sparkling headquarters. “Now look at us.”

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