From Stoke to Sunshine State: Adrian Heath brings blue-collar values to leadership of Orlando City

Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath

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USA Today Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. – Raised in a blue-collar town, Adrian Heath had to work harder than most of his peers as an undersized midfielder during his professional playing career in England. He still takes pride in the reputation he built in those days, as someone who played every game as though it might be his last.

Heath coaches in much the same manner with Orlando City Soccer Club, one of the newest additions to Major League Soccer in 2015.

“I had to play at 100 percent all the time to be good,” Heath said of a career that lasted from 1979-97. “I was always the small guy and always told I was never going to be big enough to be a player, so there was always a chip on my shoulder about that.”

After surviving uncertainty and instability during coaching stops back home following the close of his playing career, Heath carried that chip with him to North America. He’s since built the Lions into league champions in two of the past three USL PRO seasons while identifying and cultivating talent in his squad.

“I always believed there was more to football than being bigger and stronger than the opposition, and since I’ve been coaching that’s what I’ve tried to implement,” Heath said.

The one thing he’s had to come to grips with, though, is accepting that he can’t want success for his players more than they want it for themselves.

“I got the absolute maximum out of my playing career,” Heath said. “There’s a couple of instances maybe I thought I could have handled better, but I don’t want any of our players to say they didn’t make it because they didn’t work hard enough or didn’t give it a good enough shot.”

Knowing that nothing is guaranteed in this game, he demands a full 90 minutes of effort from his players, even in matches his teams control handily. It’s a simple strategy, really, fueled by childhood memories of attending Stoke City FC matches with his dad and granddad in his hometown, soaking up the perspective from the grandstands.

Heath often recites a quote to his players, one he remembers hearing from a coach during his own playing days. It perfectly sums up the relationship between fans in Orlando with that of City coaches and players.

“Supporters want to see you play like they think they would play if they had the opportunity.”

It’s a quote that mirrors the attitude of a coach who's given his life to the game. The same person that defied expectations and laid it all on the line for clubs like Stoke City and Everton, often with his dad in attendance.

“If being demanding is making everybody play at 100 percent every time we put our shirt on, then yeah, I’m demanding. But I don’t think that is demanding, I think that’s a prerequisite before anybody plays,” Heath said. “The one thing the coach should be completely guaranteed before the players go over the white line is that that every one of them is gonna leave every last bit of energy they’ve got out on the field, and that will never change with me.”

That approach has not only proved beneficial for the success of Orlando City, but for a number of players who have prospered in recent years under Heath’s guidance, most notably Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer.

Dwyer said his time under Heath during a loan stint in Orlando “sorted me out and helped me take a big step forward” last year.

“He has that balance of being close to all his players on an emotional level while at the same time having that boss mentality and respect from them, where you know when to joke and when to be serious with him,” Dwyer said. “He’s a big-time coach to me. The qualities he brings [are] going to lead to success in whatever he does.”

After scoring 15 goals in 13 regular-season games for the Lions – and four more in the USL PRO championship game – Dwyer turned his stellar time in Orlando into an MLS Cup title on his return to KC. He currently leads Sporting KC with six goals this season.

“He’s a great motivator,” Orlando City president Phil Rawlins said of Heath. “He’s got a system of play and the players know how he wants them to play, and he expects the very best of them at all times. I think he raises the bar with the players week in and week out and he makes sure they play at their very best.”

It was Rawlins who convinced Heath to come stateside and start anew in 2008, for a yet-to-be named franchise that had no home, nor colors at the time. After two seasons in Texas as Austin Aztex FC, they moved the club to Orlando in 2010 and began laying the foundation for what has become a Central Florida takeover of sorts. 

Orlando City have since showcased an exciting brand of uptempo soccer, with an emphasis on rapid ball movement and physical play. It’s a culmination of styles Heath began adapting early in his playing career while first realizing he had an interest in coaching.

He says it wasn’t until the age of 27, while playing in Spain, that the different styles and philosophies he was exposed to truly began to shape his own outlook on the game. And despite the learning curves along the way, his fresh start with Rawlins gave him all the freedom he needed to put his vision to work.

“When I came to the states I decided very early on that I was going to play the way I always wanted to play, as a very possession-oriented team,” Heath said. “I’ve loved the fact that people have said over the past few years that we’ve played like Barcelona and Arsenal at times, and that couldn’t be a bigger compliment for me and our group.”

He compares Orlando City’s style in MLS circles to that of Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC, both on and off the field. But only time will tell if the years of preparation will carry over and match the success of those clubs, and how long that might take to accomplish.

That test begins in earnest less than 10 months from now, when the Lions make their MLS debut.