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Interview: Orlando City SC head coach Adrian Heath

Photo: Courtesy of MLS

MLS expansion club Orlando City SC used the Expansion Draft to select Philadelphia Union player Pedro Ribeiro and former Union No. 1 draft pick Danny Mwanga. Before the draft, they traded for Amobi Okugo after the Union showed little interest in building around the young midfielder. 

PSP’s Adam Cann spoke with Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath about why his club wanted each player and how the talented young trio will fit into a squad that is still looking to add big names. 

I’d like to ask you a few questions about some of the players you’ve recently picked up. 

Sure, fire away.

In the past few days you’ve acquired three former Philadelphia Union draft picks, so I’d like to talk briefly about each guy and why you thought they were valuable, then talk about whether there was a logic in gathering former Union draft picks specifically. Let’s start with Amobi Okugo since you traded for him. You could have gone after a more veteran player, but you opted for a young guy who hasn’t gotten a regular run in midfield until this year. What made you think that Amobi was the right guy?

It’s strange because, very often, you get one or the other. You get somebody who’s young with not a lot of experience, or you get somebody who’s a veteran with loads of experience, loads of games behind them. Amobi, incredibly, has got both! He’s 23 years of age, he’s played over 100 games in MLS. We picked up a young, US international player, who has played in four or five different age groups. We were amazed he was available, you know!

We were delighted — I think I read somewhere that Philly were delighted with the money they got for him — well, we were delighted with the money we paid for him. We think we’ve got one of the better young players in the league, and with experience.

And everybody knows what his personality is like. He’s a great kid. He’s a great professional, a great teammate, great in the locker room, so we were more than pleased with the work we did when we got Amobi Okugo, I can tell you.

What did you see in him that made you think he was the right fit? Here’s a guy that’s gotten a ton of games, but not so many in midfield. But you think he’s a guy you can build around as a midfielder. What made you think he was someone that could go on a long run in the middle on a team like yours?

He has all the tools! He has good feet, a good presence, he’s an intelligent kid. We know that with the way we play we like to have people in midfield who can distribute and stay behind the game, who can protect the two center backs; he ticks all the boxes. As I said before, it’s not very often you get a bit of everything. We’re delighted that we’ve picked Amobi up.

The one thing we know, we know he’s played center back for a long period, so we know he can play there, so that’s an added bonus. But we just think the way that we play, we know the role and responsibility of our two defensive midfield players. We think he has all the tools to do that. And that will allow our offensive-minded players, the Kakas of this world, the players we’re going to sign over the next couple of weeks, we just think he’s going to be a really good foil to play and work alongside those people.

And you’ve already said you were pretty surprised he was available given his caliber…

Yeah, and we spoke to him and he spoke a little bit about going abroad. Once we got him to Orlando and we gave him an idea of what the future could be here, we showed him the plans for the future, the new training facility. He was delighted. He’s been with us now 3-4 days [note: This interview took place on Dec. 12] and we couldn’t be more delighted with the pickup.

So it didn’t scare you off at all knowing that he probably does have European ambitions at some point?

Well, maybe he does. But he’s 23! He can go at 26-27. And he’s going to be in his prime then. We understand that. I get that, I get that people in America want to play in Europe.

And we’ve said to him: We’re going to help you do that eventually, at some stage. He was so impressed with the project that we have, and what we feel we can become in this league, and I’m sure that down the road this will resurface, and if he’s at a different time and juncture in his career, then he maybe comes off and he maybe goes to Europe, but at 23 he still has time to do that.

Right, good point. Let me transition to Pedro Ribeiro now. There were a lot of really good players exposed in this expansion draft, and you picked a player who was a giant midfielder in college but has only played striker as a pro. What made you think that his potential and what he brings to the table?

Well, we’ve liked him since Coastal Carolina, since he was in school. We looked, obviously, at the USL level, the smaller universities, you think you might get someone that falls out of the draft. I’ve liked him for a long time.

We saw him this year when he was at Harrisburg. He played up front, he played at No. 10, he played behind that, and wherever he played on the field, he had an effect on the game. First and foremost, he’s got a great presence because of his size. He’s 6-4! He can assist goals, he can score goals, he can play in a number of attacking positions. We looked at the attributes of a lot people. And he’s there, there’s not a huge number on his salary, we think there’s a big upside on Pedro.

We’re looking forward to getting him in the building. I’ve had a conversation with him recently and he’s really excited about coming to Orlando. There’s a big Brazilian population down in Orlando, obviously. He’s so excited about playing with Kaka, training with Kaka, so he’s really excited, really stoked for the opportunity.

We took a bit of everything in the draft. We took some experience, we took some younger guys, one or two of them that’ve lost their way, and we have one or two that we think have more to come, and Pedro drops into that category of: We think there’s more to come from him.

When you’re watching him play in Harrisburg and in MLS, where do you see him planning out for the way you guys play?

Well the other good thing is, with international call-ups, the Gold Cup, et cetera, we’ll have players away. He can play through the middle, we think he can play the No. 10 position. We think he can come in from wide areas. He’s a very intelligent footballer, he’s a good footballer. We’re looking forward to getting him into the building and seeing how he jells with the rest of the group, and maybe finding out where we think his best position is.

One thing I will tell you, we spoke to players who played with him at Philly, and players that played with him at Harrisburg, and the coaches there, and they couldn’t speak highly enough of him as a player and as a boy. We take a lot of stock in character and not only do we think we’ve got a player with a lot of potential, a lot of physical attributes, but more importantly he’s a really good professional, a good person.

When you as a coach get a player with such a big upside, how do you approach him? How do you make sure he’s not pressing from the moment he comes in to make an impression on a new team? 

Hey, I want all my kids to be pressing from the moment they come in! If they don’t want to be in the team, they’re at the wrong club. I want players who want to be biting and kicking and screaming to be in the starting 11 every week.

That sounds like it fits Amobi.

Exactly! We’ll say the same to every player: Preseason is a chance for us to work out who will give us the best opportunity in the first game of the season to win a game. So they’ll all come in here with an opportunity of starting. We don’t look at individuals, we look at a collective group: What are we about? What are we trying to achieve? And who gives us the best opportunity of trying to do that.

Alright. Moving on to Danny Mwanga, he’s a guy who, early in his career, he looked dynamic. But he hadn’t played soccer as long as some of the other guys who came out in the draft, he was always take a while to develop fully. Now he’s been at a couple other clubs, what did you see in him that made you think he still had a high ceiling? 

If you look at players, you look at their physical attributes depending on where you’re going to play them. If we play him through the middle, he’s got a lot of physical tools. He’s 6-2, he’s strong, he’s quick. Hey, I’ve had a long chat with Danny. He’s lost his way a little bit, and there’s nothing wrong in that, that happens to players.

But what we do have, we have a player that we know, when he’s physically right, when he’s mentally right, he can score goals and be a real threat in MLS. You look at that first season, his rookie year in Philly, you know, there were some games he was virtually unplayable! Why wouldn’t we look at someone who maybe has lost his way a little bit, at 24 years of age… no, 23!

We think we can give him a little bit of TLC and get him in the game, in the team, and work with him and show him that we care, and show him that we’re going to work with him and get him back where he was. For nothing? We thought that was a great deal.

But there were a lot of other strikers available. Did you just see him as the best combination of youth, physical skills, and potential?

A bit of all of the above. And I’m a coach that likes little redemption stories, giving people another chance, hopefully working with them and trying to get them going and, no disrespect to some of the players in the league, but them playing at the maximum and Danny Mwanga playing at the maximum, I know which one I’d take.

He has had a bit of time where – and I’ve spoken with Danny about this – the last couple of seasons haven’t been good for him. So it’s maybe a crossroads in his career. Which way is he going to go? Which pathway does he want to take? But we’re going to help him, we’re going to try, I’m going to work with him. We’re going to give him every opportunity to get back where he was. And if he wants it, he has the opportunity to do it.

Just as a more general coaching question, do you think it’s harder for strikers to keep that confidence that they need to take advantage of those 1-2 crucial touches they get in a game, or is confidence operating the same for all the players?

I was a forward myself. I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like when you suddenly go 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 games without scoring. The pressure builds. And it’s part of the territory of being the center forward. It’s part and parcel of being the guy that goes for the most money. It’s part and parcel of being the guy that gets transferred for the most money. Because that’s the toughest thing in football.

So you get all the praise, but you get more criticism than most when it’s not going well. So I have a little bit of empathy with him; I’ve been there, I’ve done that one. But I also know that people who have done it before, I feel that in the right circumstances, they can do it again. And, as I say, we’ll give him a little bit of TLC and we’ll work with him and, hopefully, he’ll have a little bit of luck because we all need a little bit of that, and if he can get back into the team and scoring goals, who knows where he can take off to.

Final question: From where we sit in Philly, it looks like you guys operated as if you think the Union have drafted well, but there have been some guys with a lot of untapped potential here. Did you look and see, ‘Oh man, they’ve picked a guy like Okugo, a guy like Danny Mwanga, we should check and see who else they’ve picked,’ or is it just a coincidence that you happened to end up with all these Union draft picks?

We looked at what was available on the board. Different reasons. You look at the three players who played for the Philly Union: One had a great first season and lost his way a little bit. One hasn’t really had that much of an opportunity. And Amobi was somebody we felt, at 23, was ridiculously difficult to turn down.

The one thing I do know is that speaking to people within the league, one or two people would have done what we’ve done if they had the opportunity.

So when you bring these guys in, do you tell him go out there and earn their place, even with the established guys you’ve signed? How do you put all these pieces together for a MLS season?

Well, one of the things is: We have to get all of them in the building. I’m looking forward to working with them, that’s what I love to do, coaching the players, get them on the grass and let’s get down to a shape and a system. Work on their roles and their responsibilities within the system, but hey: We don’t take anybody on thinking, “If he plays really, really well, he’ll get a chance in two years.” I always say to the players: They pick themselves. Their performances Monday through Friday, and their performances on Saturday dictate whether they play or not.

Now, if they’re lucky enough to get in, it’s up to them to keep their place. If you have to wait, you have to wait. But when the chance comes around they have to take it. And when that opportunity comes, you don’t know how long it’s going to be. I always say to my players, I guarantee one thing: If you’re in the team playing well, you’ll stay in the team.

Thank you for taking the time to talk, Coach Heath. I really appreciate it. 

Cheers, bye.

10 Comments

  1. Sometimes I really hate the Union. But then I realize I hate myself for following them…

  2. Sounds like they’re really onto something in Orlando. That’s how you run a franchise right there. Heard nothing but smart, positive things from them from Day 1, and they’re making smart moves, too. Color me jealous.

    • Agreed, Heath’s answers and approach made a lot of sense (especially the part about feeling like they got a bargain with the allocation $ that they paid for Okugo).
      They clearly know what they’re doing and will soon be a formidable team in the East.

  3. Précis:
    .
    Adrian Heath: “Hahahaha! You guys are suckers!”

  4. “We were amazed he was available, you know!”

    Yup, we were all amazed as well.

  5. Between cold weather and all the moves by Orlando SC, am I the only one feeling like moving to Orlando area 🙂

    • I live just east of Orlando now, and it sure is tempting to follow a team that seems to know what they are doing, but can’t do it. I will see them on TV I guess, so there’s that. Have to agree with Wolfpack that his answers on Okugo were like a kick to the nether regions when compared to the nonsense we have to listen to from Sakiewicz year after year.

  6. This says it all about this feckless Shite organization! ” I thnk I read somewhere that Philly were delighted with the money they got for him.”

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    I stopped reading after the first answer (regarding Okugo). I almost threw my iPad (in a fit of rage) at how excited and shocked Heath was that Okugo was even available.
    .
    With that said, yes Orlando was a USL side before making the jump to MLS, but I have sneaking suspicion that we (the Union) will forever be judged against them… and I don’t see us coming out on top too often. They are doing it right, and we are doing on a budget.

  8. This is salt. This is the wound.

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