When Orlando City SC fired head coach Adrian Heath abruptly on Wednesday, it should've been a surprise. The Englishman was well-loved by Orlando fans, taking them to two championships in USL and overseeing their transition to MLS last year. Almost halfway through the season, the Lions were still in playoff contention.
But when the announcement was made around 9 p.m. Orlando time on Wednesday, it seemed about right. Orlando has been a revolving door of top-level talent since joining MLS -- a hint that the polished-looking organization may suffer more dysfunction and competing philosophies than meets the eye. It only seemed to be a matter of time before the shake-ups would reach Heath.
Rumblings out of Orlando indicate the club had considered firing him after last season, but there were concerns that letting the popular coach go could upset the Orlando fan base. Following a 4-0 loss to FC Dallas on Monday and a 2-1 loss to an NASL team last week may have been as good a time as any to justify the move.
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Since last year, the club has seen a slew of executives either be fired or leave. In some cases, the people who helped steer the club from a second-division USL club to a wildly successful MLS club -- many of them with ties to Orlando or American soccer -- were replaced with personnel who had connections overseas and to the club's majority owner, Flavio Augusto da Silva.
In one of the biggest public missteps, the club hired Armando Carneiro from S.L. Benfica in Portugal to take over many of general manager Paul McDonough's duties while McDonough was still with Orlando. During that time, assistant coach Ian Fuller's contract was not renewed and McDonough later "parted ways" with the club to eventually join MLS expansion side Atlanta United. Just weeks after that, Carneiro left too.
But there were other important changes along the way. Alex Leitao, who worked with Da Silva in Brazil, took over as chief executive officer. Orlando's VP of development Tim Holt, who previously was president of USL, left for San Antonio FC. Chief operating officer Brett Lashbrook, who had previously worked for MLS, resigned. Chief financial officer Forrest Eber, who had worked for U.S. Soccer, exited.
Orlando City was in flux since they joined MLS and the club's culture began to shift to one that wanted to be more than just a grassroots club in Orlando -- it was a shift toward becoming a global brand. The hints were there that Heath was in danger of getting wrapped up in it.
The evidence of the cultural shift that was happening was perhaps no more apparent than with the signing of Italian midfielder Antonio Nocerino in February. Heath had a three-year plan that involved signing a crop of players 21 and younger who would blossom into their roles at the club. But suddenly, Heath was forced to find room for 31-year-old Nocerino this season, a $650,000 move that hasn't paid off and has frustrated fans. Since May, Heath had increasingly opted to bench him.
Heath didn't do himself any favors, either, though. He accumulated a losing record over the MLS regular season at 16-18-16 and the team missed the playoffs by 5 points last season. Lately, the team looked especially poor and listless on the field. It wouldn't surprise anyone if players had grown disenchanted with Heath's leadership.
But it's not as if Heath had an easy job -- MLS expansion teams generally have a hard time. The last MLS expansion team to have a winning record in its first season was Seattle back in 2009. Even for non-expansion teams, the parity of MLS makes it difficult to contend for a title in back-to-back years. Just look at the Portland Timbers: They won the MLS Cup last year but, almost halfway through the season, are out of playoff position.
If the club had set a benchmark that became the impetus of their decision to fire Heath, however, they never made it public. While New York City FC's firing of coach Jason Kreis after one season was criticized as premature, the club was open about their expectations to make the playoffs in Year One. Heath did vow to make The Lions a title contender in their inaugural year, but the time for the front office to respond to missing the mark came and went in the offseason.
There's no question Orlando could've done better in the year and a half Heath managed their MLS campaign, but to fire him at this point in the season is odd. Aside from the fact that the Lions are still in the playoff fight, now looks like the least practical time to do it. The summer transfer window just opened and now Orlando will be shopping for talent without a head coach, plus they still don't have a dedicated general manager since McDonough left.
One of Heath's drawbacks was one that Orlando could easily address in their next coach: Heath had no experience in MLS until Orlando joined as an expansion franchise. MLS is a complicated league to excel in and foreign-born coaches have often struggled, with the latest example being recently-axed Houston Dynamo coach Owen Coyle.
Coaches like Kreis and ex-New York Red Bulls coach Mike Petke -- who have both had success in MLS but fell victim to the whims of front offices -- may seem like good options on paper. But the problem is, coaches like them don't look like the right cultural fit for the new Orlando City. Not anymore.
Who Orlando City hires as their next coach could say a lot about the continuing cultural shift of the club. Then again, firing Heath on a Wednesday night in July, after a string of staff shake-ups, may have said plenty.
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