The Angle

Minnesota United Coaching Candidates: The Case for Adrian Heath

by on 16 November 2016

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece outlining why Cosmos manager Gio Savarese would be a strong candidate for the Minnesota United opening in the same position. On Monday, I followed that by confirming that he was in the running for the position. As of 48 hours ago, it seemed like he was the front-runner for the United position.

Oh, what a difference two days makes.

First, credit where credit is due. Within the same minute I published our piece about Savarese, Empire of Soccer broke that Adrian Heath was the main target for United’s managerial position. With the information we had as of Monday, it’s fair to say that these two were the clear favorites for the post.

Second, it sounds as if there have been complications in negotiations between Savarese and United. It’s unclear what these are, but you can assume it was some combination of timing, salary, and readiness.

It’s also clear that there was a bigger complication than anything that Savarese could control: Heath is a highly qualified candidate for the post. It’s clear that one of the two should be the first MLS manager.

Heath’s CV

The Newcastle-under-Lyme-born Heath spent 18 years playing football, coming up with Stoke City in 1979, earning the nickname “Inchy” for his short frame. In 1982, he joined Everton for a then-club record Ł750,000, featuring for seven seasons there at the heart of their midfield. From 1988 until 1997, he bounced around clubs like RCD Espanyol, Aston Villa, Manchester City, and Burnley, ultimately retiring at 36. He took over as player-manager for Burnley in 1996/97, then spending five months as Sheffield United’s gaffer in 1999.

After serving as an assistant for a few clubs under Peter Reid, Heath made the trip across the pond, taking over the USL-1’s Austin Aztex in 2008. According to Simon Hart of The Independent, Heath met with fellow Brit Phil Rawlins (then-owner of the Aztex) in a Knutsford cafe, eventually being convinced over a cappuccino to make the trip to the United States.

The growth Heath helped oversee at Austin was tremendous and the club soon moved to Orlando City in 2010. Heath won two league titles in his first two years in Florida, turning Orlando City into the darlings of lower-division soccer in the United States, crucial to their winning an MLS expansion slot for 2015. Among the players who have developed under Heath: Sporting KC striker Dom Dwyer, OCSC winger and former USL MVP Kevin Molino, and 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin.

Heath lead the expansion Lions within five points of the MLS playoffs in their first year, earning 44 points. He was sacked on July 7, with Orlando mired in a slump and coming off of a 4-0 defeat to eventual Supporters Shield winners FC Dallas. For the rest of the year, he maintained a low profile, helping with mlssoccer.com’s postseason coverage.

Style of Play

Heath presents a very exciting, quick-decision brand of football in his teams. Orlando City worked at their best with wingers like Molino and Carlos Rivas trusting their instincts, able to cut inside and allow overlapping play from the full backs. You can start to get a small taste of his philosophy in this Goal of the Week winner from Brek Shea.

Shea, a left winger, comes up the side, seeing his full back trailing behind him as an overlapping option. Instead, he passes the ball to Kaká, using the time to immediately cut into open space. This gives Kaká the ability to make one of two decisions: first, he could turn central, see Larin at the top of the box or Cristian Higuita trailing from the midfield, and work a play up the middle.

Instead, Kaká takes the second option, seeing Shea’s run out wide and delivering a through-ball to Shea. It’s a fantastic finish from Shea from there, but this outlines a couple of key pieces of Heath’s coaching strategy: decision-making, finishing your runs, and trusting wingers to cut in as attackers.

Heath likes versatility from his players, and rumored targets like Miguel Ibarra, Josh Gatt, and Shadrach Eghan would thrive in a system like this. The three wingers all are relatively diminutive but make up for this with blistering pace, able to beat a full back who’s caught on the back foot after making a pass centrally.

In turn, full backs Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas (who will be the first players on the MLS roster) thrive in systems that allow them to push forward in attack. Check out Davis’s goal against Tampa Bay in August 2015 (goal starts at 0:37).

Winger Kalif Alhassan ends up staying back in defense, turning Davis into the de facto winger in this counter attack. Much like the play between Shea and Kaká, Davis passes the ball centrally to Ibson, who sees Davis’s continued run and passes the ball into space. Davis uses his pace to get a one-on-one opportunity against Tampa Bay’s Matt Pickens, and is able to finish the breakaway. These skills fit perfectly into Heath’s plan.

Not Heath’s First Rodeo

One of the major knocks against Savarese is a relative lack of experience, having only been a manager for four seasons, albeit four successful ones. Heath, meanwhile, was with Orlando City/Austin from 2008-2016, serving as a consistent presence in the club’s move to a new city and, ultimately, a bigger move to a new league.

Today, United unveiled Amos Magee as their first director of player personnel. Like Heath, Magee knows the league and will help Manny Lagos with setting up an MLS team over a short timeline. With Magee setting up a scouting network, building a reserve team, and helping Tim Carter with the academy, Lagos working on finalizing the MLS roster and navigating the endless hurdles in the form of league transfer rules, and Heath focusing on varnishing the on-field product, the club would suddenly have a knowledgeable, well-connected trifecta.

His experience in England shouldn’t go unmentioned. Heath has seen the major growth in English football over the last four decades, able to recognize that a league without a salary cap has seen a huge advantage go to the big-budget teams. In his interview with The Independent, Heath admits that he enjoys the parity of MLS (with non-quoted material from Hart).

“One of the great things about American sport is with the salary cap there is so much parity,” he said. “Before every season in American football there are 10 teams who think, ‘We’re going to win the Super Bowl’. Last year in MLS, DC were bottom of the league; this year they are top. One of the things that kills me now is I am not sure I am going to see Everton ever win the title again. I am not sure I am ever going to see Newcastle, Aston Villa, Spurs or maybe even Liverpool either.” In the fabled land of opportunity, by contrast, Heath can still dream big. – Simon Hart

Heath embraces the rule structure of MLS. He’s seen the alternative; rather than trying to push against the rule-based parity in MLS, he works into it, and his work in Orlando reflects this.

Connecting with the Community

Picture this scenario: a club that has dwelled in the US lower divisions is granted an expansion side. The club produces a sharp brand in the lower division and are able to maintain this branding in MLS. In a town whose major draws are seemingly-cursed sports franchises and tourism, soccer seems a perfect way to tap into a growing millennial market. Ten years ago, the market may have seemed an odd choice for MLS; now, it could be one of the hottest in the league.

Sound like Minnesota United? Maybe so, but that’s also what Orlando City were working with.

Heath became a cult phenomenon in the Magic Kingdom, with journalists and fans latching onto his English accent and off-the-cuff nature with brilliant quotes in interviews (again, this should sound familiar). Though results were hard to come by in 2016, nobody wanted to see Heath go once he was ultimately sacked.

The words used to describe his dismissal? “Conspiracy theories, bewilderment and downright anger;” “A bit of a shock;” “A very difficult board decision;” and “a legend in the town.”

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With new information, it seems clear that currently Heath is one of two front-runners for the Minnesota United head coaching position. I can see why. His tactics allow for both veterans and young players to thrive, rewarding veteran mentality and youthful energy in equal measure. He has experience working with an expansion side and nearly got them into the postseason in their first season. He became a fan-favorite, and has no problem relating to a community that isn’t seen as a “traditional” soccer market.

This doesn’t even consider ties to potential holdovers from this last NASL season. His former main assistant coach, Ian Fuller, was the assistant head coach for United this year, focusing on tactics after spending five years under Heath in Orlando. Meanwhile, winger Jamie Watson once played for Heath in Orlando and from the outside looks like a worthy contender for a role in the squad or in a media capacity for the club.

Taking all of the pieces into consideration, I’m confident in confirming what Empire of Soccer published on Monday: Adrian Heath should be considered one of the favorites to take the helm of Minnesota United. If it’s him, I’m also confident that he’d be a smart choice for the position.

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