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Why Orlando City made the shocking move to fire coach Adrian Heath

Adrian Heath
Adrian Heath (Getty Images)

ORLANDO, Fla. – In its brief Major League Soccer history, Orlando City SC has taken on an ambitious motto: Defy Expectations.

This season, the club has failed to do that on the pitch. And on Wednesday, the team fired head coach Adrian Heath.

“As a Board, we believe that we have reached a tipping point in our Club’s history where we must evaluate, learn and make difficult decisions,” wrote team owner Phil Rawlins in an open letter. “Decisions that are designed to continue our progression as a Major League Club.”

This decision follows an embarrassing 4-0 loss at Dallas in which the listless Orlando defense was overwhelmed from the start. The Lions were outshot 19-3.

“We got what we deserved,” Heath said afterwards, “which was absolutely nothing.”

The move to change managers is a bit of a shock, as Heath has led the team for eight years, including its first MLS season last year and then a very difficult few weeks after the Orlando shooting on June 12. It was clear from the enormous crowd in the club’s first home game against San Jose after the tragedy that Orlando City had become integral to this community. It had also become clear from Health’s reaction to the shooting that the coach and the city had become very close.

Yet on the field, there have been nagging issues. The Lions suffered some startling defensive breakdowns in key moments late in games. In a May interview with Yahoo Sports, team star Kaka said the playoffs were a standard for the club to meet this year. Orlando has won only four of its 16 games and currently stands just outside the Eastern Conference’s sixth and final playoff spot with 20 points.

The lineups and substitutions were also a bit odd under Heath. The offense seemed to get going only when Julio Baptista came in as a sub, so the Lions appeared discombobulated early in matches and dangerous late. That led to eight draws which felt like huge wins or devastating losses according to how the matches ended. The best example came in that emotional home game against San Jose in which Baptista scored what should have been the winner late in the second half, but the Earthquakes tied it when the Orlando City defense fell apart in the final seconds of stoppage time.

So what now? Heath’s replacement won’t be assistant Mark Watson, who was also let go on Wednesday night. Assistant coach Bobby Murphy and Orlando City B assistant Anthony Pulis will lead the team on an interim basis.

There is already speculation about Brazil coach Dunga, as Kaka’s sway with ownership is strong. But it was Dunga who spoke out about Kaka’s conditioning in the lead-up to the Copa America Centenario, and that drew the ire of the club.

Some key ingredients are in place. Kaka is thrilling when healthy, Baptista is regaining his full form after last year’s injuries and Cyle Larin is one of MLS’s brightest young stars. The acquisition of goalkeeper Joe Bendik has also seemed smart.

But too often the club has been less than the sum of its parts. The next coach will have to shore up the midfield and defense and find a way to do so without slowing down an explosive attack.

Time is short. Although Orlando City is only in its second MLS season, the new downtown stadium is set to open in 2017, and a side without a clear shot at the playoffs is not something that anyone in Orlando wants to stomach.