ST. PAUL, Minn. — Time and a couple more players have been regular, public requests from Adrian Heath, dating back to his coaching days with Orlando City SC. Since joining Minnesota United FC ahead of its inaugural Major League Soccer season in 2017, Heath has been provided with both.
Minnesota United has given Heath a new contract guaranteed through 2021 with a club option for 2022, a source confirmed to Pro Soccer USA.
Heath’s extension is a reward for helping the franchise deliver on its now-infamous, three-year plan. The specter of 2017-18 — over which the Loons became the first team in MLS history to allow 70-plus goals in consecutive seasons — was in part exorcised by the team’s first appearance in the playoffs last season. A deep U.S. Open Cup run in 2019 that saw the Loons become the first team from Minnesota to reach the final of the 105-year-old tournament didn’t hurt, either.
The new contract, first reported by the Athletic’s Jeff Rueter, comes after MNUFC reorganized its front office in November. The club reassigned former sporting director Manny Lagos to focus on the development of Minnesota’s youth academy, sport science team and a future reserve side. Former assistant coach Mark Watson was in turn promoted to sporting director, where he will assume the responsibilities of player acquisition and retention for the Loons’ first team alongside Heath, who will have increased say in personnel decisions.
That greater influence on player acquisition isn’t a new want for Heath, who unsuccessfully sought as much with Orlando. Heath spent eight seasons with OCSC, dating back to its first incarnation as the Austin Aztex in 2009. A relocation to Orlando in 2011 brought with it two USL championships and three regular-season titles. Then, as an MLS expansion side in 2015, the Lions missed the playoffs by just five points.
“I’m fully aware of what the situation is. The results dictate the security of my job,” Heath told the Orlando Sentinel in January of 2016, ahead of what would be his final year with the Lions. “Well, give me the opportunity to bring the players in that will give me more of an opportunity to keep it, and I’ll take whatever decision the club makes.”
On July 6, 2016, with OCSC having earned 20 points from its first 16 and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference — one spot out of playoff contention — Heath was fired with 14 games remaining in the regular season. The Lions fared no better without Heath that season, and slid to eighth in the East by season’s end.
Heath made no secret he felt hard done by being fired midway through Orlando’s second MLS season.
“Everybody knows my feelings about the club,” Heath said last August. “I put six and a half years working every single day to make that club what it was. From nothing, arriving when people said, ‘Football will never work in Orlando,’ to having 62,000 [fans attend a game] a few years later. I take a lot of pride and satisfaction in that.”
When Heath’s former assistant, James O’Connor, was appointed as the Lions’ manager midway through the 2018 season, Heath was asked about the appointment. In his reply, he took aim at what he saw as Orlando’s lack of patience with coaches.
“I’m absolutely delighted for James,” Heath said at the time. “He’s worked really hard for this opportunity. You know, he was coaching with me when I was back there in the early days, when we were USL. So, he’s worked really hard, done a great job at Louisville. You know, it’s nice to see another guy out of the USL getting an opportunity. He’ll do very well. He’s a good guy, a good coach. And if they give him time, I’m sure he’ll do it right.
“Time is the operative word.”
O’Connor was let go at the end of 2019 after a pair of 11th-place finishes, and Orlando City remains in search of its first postseason appearance since joining MLS five seasons ago.
When Heath landed on his feet in Minnesota in 2017, the Loons’ brass hoped Heath’s experience of having guided a lower-division team through the expansion process would pay early dividends. It did not, and Heath’s 1.06 points per game across his first two seasons with the Loons were lower marks than he had earned in any season in Orlando — USL and MLS years included.
Minnesota also did not spend the kind of money that Orlando did in each franchise’s respective first two MLS seasons, and there were more than a few player signings in Minnesota that stand as indictments of how ready the entire technical staff was for the rigors of the first division of soccer in the United States.
In late September of 2018, MNUFC CEO Chris Wright drew the ire of Minnesota’s fanbase when he gave his pronouncement of “passing grades” for Heath and then-sporting director Manny Lagos after the Loons compiled an overall MLS record of 20-43-9. Wright was forced to follow up on his evaluation shortly after, saying there would be “no excuses” for the team missing the playoffs in 2019.
The following winter, Heath’s calls for roster upgrades were answered. The team brought in centerback Ike Opara, right back Romain Métanire, defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and goalkeeper Vito Mannone. Opara and Mannone went on to win MLS Defender and Goalkeeper of the Year, respectively, and both made the league’s Best XI. Along with rookie left back Chase Gasper, the new additions were instrumental in seeing Minnesota concede an impressive 28-fewer goals than it had a season before. That defensive improvement was largely responsible for the Loons earning the right to host the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs.
That Loons’ postseason run lasted only 90-plus minutes, ending with a 2-1 to the visiting Galaxy. In his postgame press conference, Heath struck an old refrain.
“We have to get better,” said Heath. “We have to bring quality in. We did last year and we have to do the same again. If we do, this group will be a match for anybody. But, we can’t stand still, not in this league. Not in the Western Conference, because trust me, if we stand still, we lean backwards. We have to bring quality players in and that will make some big decisions. We have some big decisions to make over the next few weeks before we decide what we do.”
Two of those decisions included parting ways with designated player Darwin Quintero and longtime fan-favorite Miguel Ibarra. At present, Mannone remains a free agent and looks unlikely to return to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And key members of the Loons’ improved defense — Alonso (34), Boxall (31) and Opara (30) — aren’t getting any younger.
With the start of preseason just days away, the Loons are in need of a starting goalkeeper. To reach their stated ambitions, MNUFC could also stand to bolster an attack that finished tied with four teams for 11th in goals scored and is now without its most-talented attacker in Quintero.
Heath, with added authority in personnel decisions and another two years guaranteed, now shoulders more responsibility for seeing his team progress than at any point in his career. Building on the successful debut of Allianz Field and a first-round exit from the playoffs isn’t a given, and it now falls on Heath to show that provided with patience from ownership and the reins to shape a roster to his liking, he can keep the mid-market Loons progressing on the field.