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Like Pulse tragedy, Adrian Heath says sports will help us heal after coronavirus pandemic

Former Orlando City and current Minnesota United coach is sure soccer can help communities heal once it’s safe to play again.

Members of the Orlando community, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (center), sing the national anthem before Orlando City faces San Jose at Camping World Stadium on June 18, 2016, shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)

Adrian Heath remembers very well how sports helped the Orlando community begin healing after an ungodly tragedy.

It was 2016, and Heath was the beloved coach of Orlando City in the shocking, depressing aftermath of the Pulse shooting. A week after 49 people were shot to death in our midst, 40,000 of us came together on a surreal summer night at the Citrus Bowl not only to cheer for Orlando City, but to commemorate the victims, celebrate the first responders and start the process of feeling safe again.

“The people in this city have never let us down when we’ve needed them and maybe they need us just a little bit right now,” Heath said in 2016 when asked how sports teams have the unique ability to rally a community and a country.

Four years later, Heath, now the successful head coach of Minnesota United, says sports will again rise to occasion just as soon as it’s safe for us to come out of our homes and return to stadiums and arenas across the country.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in our lifetime. Usually, when there is a tragedy or national emergency, professional and college sports leagues continue to chug along, playing their games and providing the American public with much-needed diversions and distractions. For instance, Orlando City played six days after Pulse, but now — who knows — we might be without sports for six months while we wait for the pandemic to pass.

“This is uncharted waters of which we’ve never seen the likes of before,” Heath says. “It’s been a difficult because overnight we all came to a screeching halt. But, hey, in the grand scheme of things, we’ve got other things to worry about. As much as we love sports and as much as we miss them, when people are losing their lives, it puts it all into perspective.

“When this is all over, I think we’re going to see a tremendous amount of people rallying together. One thing that this has shown me is how much I love my job and how much I miss sports. I turned on the TV yesterday and I was watching a replay of Cal Ripken Jr. It’s like you’re in a time machine. We’re all waiting for the day that we can get back to normalcy, and when that happens, I think sports is one of the things that will bring everybody together again.”

Orlando City fans cheer during the Lions’ match with the San Jose Earthquakes on June 18, 2016, less than a week after 49 people died during the Pulse nightclub shooting. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)

For Heath and his Minnesota United team, the young MLS season had started spectacularly with two resounding victories — 3-1 over Portland and 5-2 over San Jose. The torrid start to the 2020 campaign came in the wake of the Loons making the playoffs last year in their third season of existence.

Heath, affectionately known by his nickname of Inchy, has always rightfully contended he was unfairly fired by Orlando City only a year-and-a-half  into what was supposed to be a three-year plan to turn an expansion franchise into an MLS playoff contender. He says the reason Minnesota United has been successful is that management stuck by him and let him implement the three-year plan.

“When I took over at Minnesota, we talked about a three-year commitment and implementing a plan of action that doesn’t happen overnight,” Heath said. “Expansion teams are not easy; that’s been proven over the years.  In Minnesota, we have stuck with our plan and incrementally gotten better during every transfer window.”

Asked if he took any special satisfaction from making the playoffs before Orlando City has, Heath laughed and then gave a surprising and emotional answer.

“No,” he answered. “Everybody knows what my feelings are about Orlando City. It will never be just another club for me . You can’t put 6 1/2 years every single day as I did with Orlando City growing a club from nothing  to what it’s become today and look at it as just another club. They are the first result I look for every week. I want them to do well for the supporters who go and watch every match. ”

Orlando City players stand with Orlando law enforcement officials before the start of a match between Orlando City and San Jose at Camping World Stadium on June 18, 2016, shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)

Heath believes Orlando City’s new coach, Oscar Pareja, will be successful, but only if team management starts exhibiting some patience.

“I think Oscar will do well, but I’ll throw this in again; he needs time just as every coach needs a bit of time,” Heath said. “You can’t change coaches every 18 months and think it’s going to work. Give Oscar time and he’ll do well. He proved at Dallas that he can be successful in this league. Hopefully they will give him time and Orlando can have a team that all the supporters can be proud of.”

Here’s hoping Inchy is right, just as he was in the aftermath of Pulse when he knew in his heart just how much we needed something  — anything — to feel good about.

What he said then stands true now: 

“The people in this city have never let us down when we’ve needed them and maybe they need us just a little bit right now.”

Email Mike Bianchi at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com. Hit him up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to his Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on FM 96.9 and AM 740.

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