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Q&A: Adrian Heath on Everton’s struggles, coaching MLS All-Stars, and Minnesota’s season

It’s been an eventful summer for Adrian Heath. Last month, the Minnesota United manager faced off against his beloved Everton and his side played them off the park by a 4-0 margin. On Wednesday, he’ll helm the MLS All-Stars as they face off against the best players from Liga MX. In between, he’s seen his Loons hit their stride; despite a defeat in Colorado last weekend, Minnesota sits fourth in the Western Conference, one point behind FC Dallas with a game in-hand.

Never one to give a dull answer, Heath sat down with The Athletic in late July to revisit the friendly against Everton and take stock of the young players helping lead his side into its “next chapter.” We also discussed new designated player Ménder Garcia, how he would modify MLS’s roster rules, whether or not other leagues properly “respect” the MLS player, and the upcoming summer showcase. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

After all the emotions in the build-up and immediate aftermath of the friendly against Everton, how do you view that result now?

Well, we were on a nice little run going into it. When you’re playing a Premier League club, my worry was that if we took a bit of a shellacking it might dent the confidence of the group. For me, I was so pleased with the way that we played — and obviously, the scoreline is great, but it was more about the way that we played. I said to the players before the game, all I want us to do is go and show people that we’re at the highest level of football, that they will have some respect for you after the game. And that was what we achieved.

What emotion won out in the moment when the final whistle went: was it the joy for your own team winning, or were you thinking…what’s going on with Everton?

A bit of both. Before the game, I wanted to win so badly because that’s the competitive nature that I have. Anybody will tell you I want to win today as badly as I did when I was 17 years of age, making my debut. On the night, I’m so proud of all my players for the way they presented the club.

I was so pleased that Graeme Sharp was there, one of my best friends in football who’s on the board now at Everton. The realization is that they’re going to need some players that are going to help. Frank (Lampard)’s gonna need some help, because last year was tough and now they’ve sold Richarlison. It’s a really unforgiving League, the Premier League. I think Frank’s shown at the back end of last season that he can galvanize the group, but I feel as though the group has to be better for him — and I’m sure the club are aware of that. I think they still need three or four top players to avoid being in a situation like they were last year.

Hopefully, we’ll never get to the stage where it was, you know, to be down against Crystal Palace. I was feeling the worst, but I always thought that the supporters in the stadium would get them through. That’s what happened in the end.

Having interacted with Kevin Thelwell during his time with New York Red Bulls, what should Everton fans know about their director of football?

I know for a fact he’s incredibly well organized, and that all of his family are Evertonian. He’s incredibly well thought of in the arena where he works, and I think that obviously, they won’t want to go through what they went through last year.

Kevin knows they’ve got a big rebuilding job. Everton Football Club shouldn’t be where they are. I think we can say that there’s been some really poor recruitment over the years, because it’s not like you can accuse (Everton majority owner Farhad) Moshiri of not spending money. I think the recruitment has to be so much better than it’s been over the last five, six years. Some of the players have been in the wages, and the salaries they pay are enormous. I don’t think anybody would worry about it if they were in the top six or seven or eight, but to be in that bottom third of the table, it’s not a lot of return on their investment.

Let’s talk about your current club. It’s been a big window for you already — not necessarily as active as you’ve needed to be in past years, but selling Adrien Hunou was significant. How do you look at his time here?

I can’t look at it any other way than disappointment, really. I feel for the kid because he’s the nicest kid you’ll ever meet in your life. I know he wanted to make this work, he loved being in America. He loved being here, that was really evident. We had long chats about how it’s going. People don’t realize that, in minutes on the field per goal scored, I think he had the best goal scoring ratio for minutes on the field (in Ligue 1 before moving to Minnesota) because he was coming off the bench a lot on a team (Rennes) that was doing well. I thought he could translate that with more minutes on the field.

You know, in the first year, he got seven goals in 21 games, so one in three wasn’t that bad. But deep down, it kept gnawing away at me that I don’t think this is gonna take us to where we want to go. I want to win. I want to go to the Western Conference Finals, and I want to go one better this time. I didn’t feel as though that was gonna happen (without a change), and Adrien was really good about it. We sat down and I said, Listen, none of us expected this to go like this. He said, it’s football coach; I understand. As I said, he’s a great kid and I wanted it to work for him. But I deep down rightly or wrongly, and we’ll see long term when it was the right decision. I felt as though that was the decision that needed to be made.

I take it that opens up a big chance for Luis Amarilla to stay in the lineup moving forward?

Luis is now getting this opportunity. I think that the last few weeks we’ve seen a better Luis. When he came in, he didn’t hit the ground running. He had come in as a newly married guy and they’d just had a new baby and moved to a new country, new culture again and didn’t really know the group of people around him. Now we’ve started to, I feel, show a little bit of what we thought we were getting in the first time round. When he first got here (in 2020) before his injury, Luis was on fire. I hadn’t forgotten that, because then he goes away and gets one (goal) in two (games, on average) in Ecuador.

When the opportunity arose to bring him back, we thought it was a good opportunity. Bear in mind, I think we paid $1.6 million for Luis or something. When we were negotiating the first time around, we were talking $4.5 million. We found what represented a good value for us. I just feel as though the last few weeks, he’s starting to look like he’s our Luis and I think from now on into the end of the season, they’ll see a really, really brighter Luis.

Are you ready to just have your starting No. 9? I feel like we’ve talked about this every year.

We do. Some people have said that considering I had been a number nine, why have we not been able to find one? Trust me, that’s not lost on me. I don’t hide from that; we’ve had three or four goes at this, and I hope that we’ve got it right this time.

You know the irony of it all was — and I said this last year at one stage — I wish we’d had Christian (Ramirez) back. Christian playing with this group is different than the group that Christian was playing with when he left. We actually looked into the possibility of bringing Christian back. We couldn’t do it, but I said to the staff: Christian Ramirez, with this group of players, would score goals. It’s amazing: there’s not a week that goes by where people aren’t telling me we should have kept him, but he was the only guy we had at that time that anybody wanted. For us, we needed to generate money to go and change the squad. It was never that I didn’t think he was a good player. You know, the fact that LAFC took him should tell you enough. In that group of players they had, I thought he was gonna kill it. I thought, oh my God, this guy’s gonna score 40 goals.

That’s the nature of the game. You make decisions at the time because you have to for different reasons. I hope now that Luis can be that guy that we’ve wanted for the last two or three years. Obviously, (new designated player) Ménder (Garcia) can come in as well and play through the middle. He can play in wide areas, he’s incredibly quick. We’re really excited about him.

Garcia is 23, which is still young on this roster. He’s someone you see as contributing right away, not one for the future?

Yeah, he has a role right away. The disappointing part for us and for Ménder is that he’s not playing now (at Once Caldas) because he’s our player. He’s not played for the last three weeks and we just hope that doesn’t go for another two weeks. We’ve got him on a program down there. He’s working really, really hard. We hope that he can come in and contribute right away because the energy and the pace he’s got, I think will be there for all to see.

There was reported interest from abroad in signing Robin Lod away from the club. How do you view both the potential of him leaving the club but also what Robin has been for this club?

Well, I remember getting a lot of stick when we signed him. I said it at the time, when Robin was a bit slow to start: he came off the beach when he arrived here. After the first few months, he’s been unbelievable in any position that we played. Wide right. false nine, number 10, now a six, he’s played as an eight. He’s, for me, as valuable as any player that we have on our books and another one of them guys who’s a coach’s dream. He plays really, really well wherever you play him, never complains about a role, and always looks as though there’s a goal threat as well.

As much as I look at the number nine and we haven’t really gotten it right as much as I would have liked, elsewhere around the field, I think we’ve done really well. The likes of (Bakaye) Dibassy, (Michael) Boxall, some the people we’ve picked up like Joseph Rosales and Kervin Arriaga. We’re doing well in the transfer market; we just haven’t gotten the No. 9 right yet.

Hlongwane has really impressed me in his first year out of South Africa. There aren’t many players in MLS who are able to both make that defensive press up front and also know the quick decision when the ball turns over to create a goalscoring opportunity.

I think one of the things that has been overlooked — and obviously, people can see the burst of pace that he’s got — but think of the timing of the ball to (Franco) Fragapane last week, the weight of that pass. I think you saw the reaction of the players (after his first MLS goal). They were so pleased for him. He’s an unbelievable kid.

He eats lunch with the Spanish speakers at their table. All you hear is raucous laughter, and he’s in the middle of it. He doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, you know what I mean? He’s a really popular member of the group. I was so pleased for him, and I think there’s still so much more to come from him. I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of what he can become.

You also landed Arriaga this winter on a bargain salary. What do you remember about scouting him initially?

I remember sitting in the house watching Honduras in a World Cup qualifier. We have a group text with the staff, and if I’m not mistaken, they might have been playing Mexico. I sent a text out: if you’re watching this, am I the only one who thinks the big tall midfielder might be the best player on the field? Two seconds later, all the staff say yeah, he’s been pretty impressive. The fact that he was down in Honduras, I was thinking, here we go. Bargain market. We put him on our discovery list, but Austin already had him on theirs. We did that conflict resolution where you go, we actually want to speak to the kid, and we had to pay 50 grand or whatever it was.

I’ll always remember when we got to Portland for preseason. He can’t play because his paperwork’s not through. We want to get him going, you know, we want to see him. We’re playing against the (collegiate) Portland Pilots at their facility. Within two minutes, we’re sort of looking at each other like, “Jesus Christ.” If this is what’s to come… He’s just marauding up and down the field, smashing people, pinging the ball, shots from 30 yards. It didn’t take us very long to realize that this kid can play properly. It proved to be a really good pickup for us. Joseph was another one who we saw in the Olympics and feel as though at just 21, there’s a lot more to come from him.

Maybe he’s only young by goalkeeper standards, but Dayne St. Clair made his first All-Star team at age 25. After spending most of 2021 on the bench, has his form surprised you at all?

For me, the Dayne and Tyler (Miller) situation has been a really good learning lesson for a lot of people at our club. When you’re not playing, it’s very easy to incrementally lose enthusiasm each week, or your energy levels drop because you don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Monday mornings are generally when we do the hard session for all the guys who have not played over the weekend. I always say to them this is the biggest day of the week for you, because you don’t see it but you have to be ready when your opportunity comes. Now, I can use Dayne as an example.

Dayne’s opportunity came because Tyler got food poisoning; not because Tyler played badly. He got food poisoning. We had to put Dayne there and he got the opportunity against (New York) Red Bulls. We won the game, but he made three or four unbelievable saves. In a flick of a switch, that’s how quickly your life in football can change. Dayne’s got to put himself in a position now where “I’ve got my opportunity, I’m not going to let it go.” That can happen to any player at any moment.

On the reverse side, what do you tell a player like Tyler? 

That’s the difficult part. Tyler is experienced. He wants to play. Dayne came in to see me and asked what he could do to get on the team. I told him you ain’t got to do anything, just keep performing and hopefully you’ll get your opportunity. The opportunity came in not normal circumstances. Well, that can happen again to Tyler. The one thing I will say is Tyler’s attitude and training has been unbelievable. You can’t be feeling sorry for yourself Monday to Friday because you’re not playing. That can’t happen.

Looking elsewhere from this MLS summer window, does Gareth Bale on a TAM deal pass the smell test?

It’s very very, what shall we say? When somebody’s been earning six hundred thousand per week… I saw Ernst Tanner question it, and you see them amassing the players that they are, but at the end of the day, John (Thorrington) came out and denied it vehemently so I’m not one to cast aspersions. I think we all hope that the integrity of the league has been upheld, and John came out and quite strongly said, “we’re doing everything above board.” I’ve got a lot of time for John. I think John came out with a perfect answer, so you take it for face value.

If there’s one MLS roster rule you could just get rid of or modify, what would it be?

If there’s one I wanted to bring in, I think we should be able to do interleague transfers for actual capital and  not just allocation money. If Toronto wants one of our players for $8 million, I think we should be allowed to do it. I think that should be allowed then to keep players in the league. I don’t see why every time we have to buy somebody, we have to go outside of the country to do so.

I’ll give an example. When we were in Orlando, there was a lot of interest in Cyle Larin. There were so many teams within the league that wanted to get Cyle, but didn’t have enough allocation money, so he had to go outside the league. I think that if Toronto had wanted to bring him home at that particular time and offered $7 million, I think we should have been allowed to do it. Then we’d have money to reinvest in the league and put it to somebody else.

It would actually then benefit the value of the players within the league. You could then turn around and say we bought him for $7 million, so we’re not selling him for $3 million or $4 million. Outside teams would know that if you want that kid and his development is going well, the floor is probably $10 million.

I think the word ‘respect’ comes up a lot in our interviews, and I saw the Daily Mail interview after the Everton match about Premier League clubs respecting MLS players.  If you’re looking at your utopian ideal, what does respect look like to you?

I think it’s people evaluating what’s going on somewhere else for what it is. I’ve just seen one club spend 35 million on somebody who’s not as good as this guy in MLS who you could have got for 4 million. I’m just telling you, it’s there if you want to, if you want to have a look at it.

Where I get really disillusioned at times is that if a Premier League club went to a Championship club, the Championship club would immediately hear $25 million and would pay it without batting an eyelid, but they won’t gamble on four. I don’t even think it’s a gamble because invariably I think the guy I’ve just offered them is a fit. That is the part I struggle with. I feel as though that’s the lack of respect, that he was “only playing in Vancouver, only playing in MLS.”

Darlington Nagbe is a perfect example. I find it criminal that Darlington didn’t get a spell in in Europe for a top club. With his abilities. I believe that Darlington could have played in the top league in nearly every nation in Europe. Obviously, there was the Celtic stuff a few years ago and for whatever reason, it didn’t go through. I recommended Darlington to a couple of clubs. There’s been other players like him who could have easily gone abroad and not only gone there and contributed, but would have been really, really good. Yeah.

In that Daily Mail interview, you also talked about this as probably being your last contract. Do you see this as this is your last few years?

I’ve always said that I would like this to be my last job in coaching because if it is, it means that it’s going well. I’m not silly: I’ve been in this a long time, and if it’s going particularly bad or worse, you don’t keep the job.

I really enjoy the people I work for. I have a great relationship with Bill McGuire and the ownership group. We have weekly meetings, me and (club CEO) Shari (Ballard), who’s been fantastic since she’s been in the job. I just want to keep building. I just mentioned five or six young players earlier; we’ve started to look at the next phase, if you like, and that’s quite exciting. I’m really excited about that. And as I said in the article, whenever my coaching days are done, I would love to go upstairs and help the club develop and keep growing. When you’re five years on, going into the sixth season, you don’t even see there’s still so much more that needs to be done, so much of the stuff that I call ‘under the surface’ to have it continually need to keep getting better.

That would ultimately be what I want to go after, but at this moment in time, there’s no inclination for me to stop coaching. I think it’d be really difficult for anybody to say to you that my enthusiasm on the training ground this morning was any less than it was five years ago. It would be impossible, and the lads will tell you that.

Your eventful summer isn’t done yet. How are you approaching the All-Star Game?

I think the best thing about the All-Star Game, for me, is being around elite athletes. It’s great being around them guys and it’d be nice to know a bit more about them. For three days, obviously it’s a small amount of time, but to be able to be around Carlos Vela or Chicharito for three days and have a conversation with them, get to know them a little bit, that’ll be nice.

I honestly think, Jeff, it’s a real reward for the club. I really do. The ownership group built this great stadium. They gave us an international game on the coldest night ever in USMNT history and the whole stadium’s full. The women’s game comes out. I just think that our fans and our ownership group and everybody connected with the club deserve this. The fact that the glare of MLS and of Liga MX is going to be on Minnesota for three or four days, I know we’ll make a great account of it.

We want to win the game. I thought that the game last year actually had a different edge to it, because we all know about the rivalry. I honestly think that Liga MX knows that MLS is getting closer and closer (in quality) every single year. The fact that now they’re playing each other adds in another little layer to it. I don’t think it’ll feel like a real friendly game like it used to be. I think this is going to develop over the next few years. It looked at the squad they picked for Liga MX; you know, they picked a proper squad. They left all the big guys out last year, so I’m looking forward to it.

(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports)

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