Adrian Heath admits he got a bit choked up the other day when he walked into Orlando City’s new stadium for the first time.
In Central Florida for the MLS Player Combine, Heath felt conflicted as he entered the Purple Palace and soaked in all of its beauty, character and splendor. Should he be happy or mad, nostalgic or sad?
“Yes, I got a little bit emotional,” says Heath, the popular former Orlando City head coach who is now the head coach of Minnesota United FC “We spent six years dreaming about this place. … It’s everything I hoped it would be when we were coming up with the idea in our minds.”
Actually, it’s been more like seven years since Heath and Orlando City founder Phil Rawlins came to town with this cockamamie idea that Orlando could actually become a Major League Soccer city. Not only that, but they envisioned a soccer-specific stadium complete with “The Wall” – a European-style, all-standing section inhabited by the club’s raucous and rowdy supporter groups.
Heath, lovingly known by his nickname of “Inchy” by Orlando City supporters, made a beeline for The Wall when he first walked into the stadium. He wanted to get a sense and feel of the place just to see if it truly was everything he imagined. Inchy stood alone and looked over the stadium and franchise he helped build from nothing.
It still pains Heath that he never got a chance to coach Orlando City in the stadium he helped design. Even though he loves his new job as coach of another MLS expansion franchise, he acknowledges that returning to Orlando is like “coming home.”
When I ask him if he is over the anger and bitterness he harbored after being fired by Orlando City in 2016, his long, uncomfortable pause tells you all you need to know. He still feels he was treated unfairly and his dismissal was handled badly.
His emotional, wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve demeanor is why he stayed silent for so long. Always candid and accommodating with the media, Heath refused countless interview requests for months after his departure.
“I’ve always tried to answer questions as honestly as I can,” Heath says now. “If I would have done an interview, I know I would have said something I would have regretted.
“We had a three-year plan and I never got an opportunity to finish the plan,” he adds about the night he was fired. “That’s what was disappointing for me. I get that people move on (and coaches get fired); I just felt I deserved a better and more dignified exit.”
You bet he did.
Heath was more than just a soccer coach; he was a soccer ambassador. He and Rawlins were the pied pipers of the pitch. And Heath certainly deserved more loyalty and longevity from a club he helped build from scratch.
The ham-handed way Orlando City handled Heath’s dismissal should go into a PR textbook underneath the chapter on “How Not to Fire a Popular Coach and a Beloved Member of the Community.”
Remember how Heath’s ouster went down? He actually learned of his firing from the media and then Orlando City put out a press release at 9 o’clock on a Wednesday night. There was no fond farewell news conference for Heath the next day. There were no club officials available to spell out the reasons for his firing. There was nobody to answer questions as to why a community treasure was unceremoniously dumped just halfway through his second MLS season with his team still in the thick of the playoff race.
Even now, when he’s back in Orlando and having dinner in a restaurant, Heath gets smothered with hugs and handshakes from well-wishers. Even though he’s coaching up in the great white north of Minnesota, the constant mail he receives from fans in Central Florida warms his soul.
“My relationship with the fans of Orlando will never change,” Inchy says.
But you wonder if Orlando City’s connection to the fans will start changing now that the new-car smell and the old-friend feel have disappeared from the franchise. The three most visible members of the club are now gone. Heath is coaching another team, Rawlins is living in Colorado and is no longer a visible part of the franchise and Kaká has retired.
Those three faces – those three fan-friendly faces – are responsible for much of the goodwill Orlando City built during its first three years in MLS. Moving forward, what will the organization do to re-connect with the community?
A good first step would be March 10 when Inchy brings his new team — Minnesota United FC – to town for the first time.
That’s when Orlando City should pay tribute to one of its founding fathers.
Adrian Heath should be properly honored at the stadium he helped build and by the franchise he helped create.
Email me at email@example.com. Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on FM 96.9 and AM 740.