Heart, effort, desire, energy and fight to the finish.
Those were the trademarks of Orlando City's identity in the five years under now former head coach Adrian Heath, who parted ways with the club on Wednesday night.
It was a fun five years, accompanied by trophies in the USL, and mixed success in MLS (16-18-16 record under Heath). But that attack-minded style of play was a big reason the city embraced the team early on when many national observers were still skeptical as to what kind of reception soccer would get in Orlando.
It turned out that matches at Camping World Stadium were an event, whether you were at the stadium or watching on TV. You knew you’d see the Men in Purple throw numbers forward and create a multitude of chances, no matter the minute on the clock.
Whether they’d all go in? Well, that was another story.
Although Orlando have been No. 2 in the league in shot conversion percentage since joining MLS in 2015 (12.96 percent compared to the LA Galaxy’s league-high 14.6 percent), they are middle of the pack when it comes to big chance conversion (No. 12 at 46 percent compared to No. 1 Portland’s 60 percent).
Still, all the attacking made for pulsating end-to-end action (OCSC came from behind for a result in six of their 16 league matches this year) and some wild finishes (Orlando has scored seven goals in or after the 90th minute thus far in 2016). It’s what made them so fun under Heath. But it was also part of a problem.
Significantly contributing to the entertainment value around Orlando matches was their penchant for leaking goals, often at the most inopportune times. Pushing numbers forward often means being vulnerable on the other end of the field. And whether it's been a question of personnel or tactics, they've conceded 29 goals this season – the fourth worst mark in MLS. They were also fourth worst with the 56 conceded in 2015.
And it’s ultimately that leaky team defense that has most contributed to their middling point total at home (1.7 points per game, good for 11th of 20 teams in 2016), even though they’re still undefeated at Camping World Stadium (3-0-6). The 14 goals allowed at home this season is the second highest total in MLS.
Maybe all that running and chasing finally took its toll. On Orlando's defenders. On 34-year-old superstar Kaká. On the coronary health of the Orlando City board of directors, who elected to move on from Heath on Wednesday night.
The team definitely showed no appetite for running on Monday, appearing tired and defeated for the entire first half against FC Dallas on Independence Day in Frisco. It was as outmatched as any MLS team has looked against another all year and Heath himself called the 4-0 loss the “worst performance of the season.” It didn’t help Heath's cause that it came just five days after the heartbreaking, last-minute US Open Cup elimination at home against second-division Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s concentration, or people not doing their job,” Heath said after the FC Dallas match. "You can dress it up however you want. Ultimately, it’s your man. You’ve got to mark him, and we didn’t do it well enough all evening."
Maybe it was personnel: Chasing attackers in the open field is not what center backs Seb Hines (12 starts) or David Mateos (13 appearances in two years) do best. Central defender Tommy Redding, 19, is still learning the trade (15 career appearances). First-choice right back Rafael Ramos has missed six matches this year and left back Brek Shea has admitted he’s still picking up on the nuances of the position. And last year’s starter, Aurelien Collin, is now a fixture for the New York Red Bulls.
Yet the season is not lost. Heath helped build a roster that is still capable of qualifying for the playoffs (Orlando currently sit just outside the playoff picture on a tiebreaker). But to do so, Orlando will likely have to use this change in head coach to adopt a new philosophy — perhaps one based on a more measured, tactical approach. If the success enjoyed by the likes of Colorado, Philadelphia — and even the most recent four-game winning streak by NYCFC — has shown us anything, it’s that winning starts with committed team defense.
The romantic in me wanted to see Heath succeed with his swashbuckling style. It was refreshing, entertaining and it endeared thousands to them in Central Florida. But teams, their styles and their ambitions change and evolve. The Portland Timbers revealed how adopting a more pragmatic approach last year won them MLS Cup.
There’s no reason to believe that with the right additions in the transfer window and the appointment of the right successor, that same script can’t eventually play out in Orlando.