Orlando City will face Minnesota United and former head coach Adrian Heath Saturday, an emotional matchup that will have an impact on the Lions’ playoff push.
Heath, now at Minnesota, led Orlando City during its USL days and piloted the team through its transition into MLS. The coach was known for doing more than just leading the team on the pitch — he promoted Orlando City widely off the field, educating the community about the sport to help the Lions reach the highest level of American soccer.
After nearly seven years with the club, Heath was fired midseason in the midst of the club’s second MLS season. He openly voiced frustration following the termination, saying he didn’t have time to finish executing his three-year plan for the club and “deserved a better and more dignified exit.”
Facing his former team on Saturday, Heath said he took “pride and satisfaction” in growing a culture of soccer in a city where he was often told the sport would never catch on. That feeling only heightens his desire to beat the Lions.
It’s the third time Heath has faced his former team — after winning both of the previous matches — but the former coach said the feeling doesn’t wear off with time.
“I think it’s always personal when you play against your old club,” Heath told Pro Soccer USA. “Everybody knows my feelings about the club. I put six 1/2 years working every single day to make that club what it was. I think everybody who knows me in Orlando [knows] that I would like nothing more than to win this game at the weekend.”
Heath’s Minnesota team also features a familiar face for Orlando City. Midfielder Kevin Molino, the first of the Orlando City’s USL players to make the jump up to MLS with the team, is now in his second season with the Loons.
Molino’s last chance to face his former club in 2018 ended painfully — he tore his ACL. This year, with three goals and three assists under his belt, Molino is looking to make a more positive memory against a club that he says he still holds dear.
“I love the club,” Molino told the Star Tribune. “That’s the first club I played coming out of Trinidad and they gave me everything that I want when I leave Trinidad. That a club that’s close to my heart.”
The meeting will be emotional for Orlando City coach James O’Connor as well. When the Lions were still in the USL, O’Connor served as a player/coach under Heath before becoming the head coach of Louisville City. Heading into the match, O’Connor spoke to the importance of avoiding the personal side of the game to focus on delivering results.
“He’s someone we have enormous respect for,” O’Connor said. “Any time you play against someone you’ve got respect for, the game starts and you both want to win the game. Before it’ll be great, I’m sure we’ll have a drink after the game, but … you stick your professional hat on and it’s a game for both of us that we want to win.”
Even without the drama of facing Heath, Saturday’s game holds weight for the Lions as they continue to seek out a spot above the playoff cut line.
For the Lions, the struggle this season has been stringing together positive results. Orlando City has yet to win back-to-back MLS matches, but the team is now on a three-game unbeaten streak. The Lions are tied with Toronto FC with 33 points, with only one win separating Orlando from the No. 7 spot above the playoff cut line.
The Loons have been particularly dangerous at home this year, notching eight of their nine shutouts of the season at Allianz Field. The team is 8-1-4 at home, commonly selling out for a crowd of more than 19,000 fans. But Orlando City has also proven itself on the road this season, going 3-5-5 and showing an ability to grind out draws in hostile territory.
“When you look at the impact that the new stadium has had on the club, I think it’s been really positive,” O’Connor said. “The supporters have been able to generate a great atmosphere. Its’a club that’s definitely on the up. We’re expecting a tough game, but we’re hopeful we can go and maintain our form.”
Minnesota is one of the highest scoring teams in the league, sitting at No. 2 in the Western Conference behind LAFC. Led by Darwin Quintero with eight goals, the Loons are well-rounded on the attack, with 15 different players finding the back of the net so far this season.
The team is further fortified in goal by keeper Vito Mannone, who has 84 saves so far this season, the third-most in MLS.
“They’ve got a lot of pace in the front areas,” O’Connor said. “I think the biggest thing for us is understanding their right-hand side. They’ve got a lot of threats and for us it’s just managing the game and understanding how they’re going to attack.”
Orlando City vs. Minnesota United FC, 8
Where: Allianz Field
Watch: WRBW-Channel 65, YouTube TV, ESPN+
The Buzz: Orlando City secured a 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City at home on Wednesday. … Minnesota also earned a 1-0 win at home on Wednesday, topping the Colorado Rapids. … The Lions are led by Tesho Akindele, who scored his ninth goal of the season against SKC to take the team goal-scoring lead. … Star designated player Nani also lifts the team with eight assists. … For Minnesota United FC, Darwin Quintero has led the attack with eight goals, while Jan Gregus has added eight assists.