Thursday’s MLS is Back Tournament semifinal between Orlando City and Minnesota United is already being dubbed the Adrian Heath Derby. After all, "Inchy"’s history with the Lions stretches back to the late 2000s, long before he took over the Loons in 2017 for their MLS expansion entry.
To get a sense of how deep this storyline runs, here’s a look at just how central Heath has been to both clubs. There’s plenty of narrative to track ahead of Thursday’s game (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVAS2 in Canada).
Austin hiring (2009-10)
Heath’s time stateside actually started with the Austin Aztex in 2008, a since-dissolved USL club that relocated to Orlando when Phil Rawlins moved the club from Texas to Florida in 2010. They found relative success and drew nearly 4,000 fans per game in the second division, though the players and coaches shipped East for a new start.
It was an important beginning point for Heath, an accomplished striker during his own playing days who won two English league titles with Everton and also had spells with Stoke City, Burnley and others. He experienced an on-and-off again managerial start, twice serving as caretaker at Coventry City (along with other stops) before heading to Austin.
USL success (2011-14)
Before Orlando started in MLS in 2015, the club spent four seasons in USL Pro (third division) with Heath at the helm. They won the title twice, first in 2011 against the Harrisburg City Islanders and then in 2013 against the Charlotte Eagles before nearly 21,000 fans. The Citrus Bowl, where Orlando played its first two seasons in MLS, became a fortress of sorts as they also won three regular-season titles.
As Heath and Co. set the pace in USL, some familiar names were at the center of it all. Current Minnesota United midfielder Kevin Molino and Orlando striker Dom Dwyer were foundational pieces as professional soccer in Orlando truly took off.
MLS start (2015)
Orlando were named as Major League Soccer’s 21st club in November 2013, setting up a runway for the Lions to join the top flight in 2015. The announcement was vindication for Rawlins' lofty aspirations when moving the franchise from Austin to Orlando and for the on-field successes overseen by Heath at each stop
That earned Heath the chance to coach Orlando in MLS, where they went 12-8-14 as an expansion club in 2015. That 44-point total remains as Orlando’s highest mark in MLS, even if they finished below Toronto FC for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Orlando departure (2016)
Heath was fired midway through the 2016 season, with the Lions holding a 4-4-8 record at that juncture. The July move still caught some by surprise, ending his eight-year run in charge of the club.
“Adrian has served this club with passion and enthusiasm,” Rawlins said in a press release at the time. “While our successes together are undoubtable, we believe the renewed energy this change will bring will be uplifting for the team. We feel that the time has come for us to move on with our future in MLS. We continue to remain very excited about the growth of our club."
Orlando’s point total in the post-Heath era continued to decline until a small turnaround in 2019. However, the Lions still haven’t made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and have proven defensively inconsistent. Their 74goals against in 2018 is one of the worst totals in MLS history, only one-upped by FC Cincinnati leaking 75 in 2019.
Minnesota beginnings (2017)
Heath didn’t remain a free agent for long, soon being hired by then-expansion club Minnesota United in November 2016. The project bore stark similarities to the one at Orlando, with Heath put in charge of a transition process as the Loons moved from NASL to MLS.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons proved a tough start to life in MLS, though with renewed investment and the opening of Allianz Field in 2019 Minnesota is mostly definitely trending up. Last year they made the U.S. Open Cup final and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history.
Now, it all comes full circle as Heath faces his old club in a do-or-die match at the MLS is Back Tournament. Inchy’s already said he has an “incredible fondness” for Orlando, so extra emotion is boiling beneath this tilt at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.