Adrian Heath - waves - at the Citrus bowl
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Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath: Orlando City "will never be just another team for me"

Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath knows the emotional weight of Thursday's MLS is Back Tournament semifinal against Orlando City will carry (8 pm ET | ESPN/Deportes; TSN, TVA Sports 2).

So two days prior to leading his current side against a club he helped build from the ground, he's leaning into it.

"I’ve said it many times … that Orlando City will never be just another team for me," Heath said during a conference call on Tuesday afternoon. "I spent too many years, too many hours to make it become what it was and what it became. And most of it started here at Disney. So we’ve got great memories of this place."

Heath was at the helm at the USL PRO beginnings, when the Austin Aztex relocated to Orlando beginning with the 2011 season, and he promptly led the side to two championships and three regular season crowns in what was then considered the third tier of American soccer. 

The club repeatedly set lower-division attendance records, and contested their final USL season at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex, site of the current tournament.

"It was a very, very special place for us to play," Heath said. "I’ve got great memories of winning conference season and winning finals, and I’m really looking forward to the game. Because you know what my connection Orlando City is, and the city itself. So it will always be more than just another game for me, because of my respect I have for the supporters. We built the club together."

Heath was eventually fired in 2016 a season-and-a-half coaching the MLS version of Orlando. And he made his first return as Loons' boss back in the 2018 regular season (shown below).

He admits he "sometimes" wonders what might've been had he been allowed to stay, though there's also no ill will.

"There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, a lot of things has changed at the club. It’s not recognizable really as the club that I left," Heath said.

And he believes — as perhaps many might so far — that new manager Oscar Pareja was a good hire.

"I think the most impressive thing that Oscar’s done is to make them an incredibly well-drilled outfit in such a short period of time," Heath said. "When he got appointed I thought he was a good appointment, I know he’s going to do well here. You look at what he did in Colorado, you look at what he did in Dallas, you look at what he did down in Mexico, the guy’s a pretty talented coach. And you can see the belief that they have within the group."

Pareja shared a similar appreciation of what his predecessor has been able to do with his new team — and for what he did for the Lions.

"I have such respect for him and for every head coach in the league," Pareja told reporters on Tuesday. "I know how hard this job is and what it takes just to run the club and run the team. Sometimes things bounce in our way, sometimes they don’t. But the recognition for the experience and the hard job that Adrian has done and continues to do is huge. For me all my respect for him and for the things he has brought to the league."

Nostalgic for the old boss or not, Orlando City fans should expect the same Heath in the opposing coach's box that used to be in theirs. 

"I look a bit grayer, and a little bit older — that’s what this job does do you," Heath said. "But I do everything with the same enthusiasm I’ve always done."

As for what Heath should expect from his current side? They might not have the same emotions. But they sense the importance.

"At this point, I don’t think our players need extra motivation," said defender Chase Gasper. "But yeah, to do it and to win it for your coach, that would mean a lot to him, and so it would mean a lot to us as well."

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