Heath: The USL is a viable alternative to MLS
Adrian Heath is the coach of the expansion USL First Division team, the Austin Aztex. Heath played professionally in Europe for 18 years, beginning his career with his hometown club Stoke City before moving on to play for Everton, Espanyol, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Burnley. With Everton, Heath won two league championships, the A Cup and European Cup Winners Cup in a six-year span. His performances for the club earned him a place in the Everton Hall of Fame.
Under Heath's guidance, the Aztex have had a promising start to the season and are undefeated in their first four games, with one win and three draws. ESPNsoccernet spoke to Heath to get his thoughts:
ESPNsoccernet: Talk about your FA Cup experience.
Adrian Heath: That's an appropriate question with Everton heading back to the final. I've been doing a lot of interviews [recently] with the English media as a result of that, and it is good exposure for the club here. I scored an overtime goal that took Everton back to the FA Cup Final in 1984.
ESPNsoccernet: Being a former top-level professional, what type of advice do you give to guys like Lyle Adams (Wake Forest '08), Michael Callahan (UNC '07) and Sullivan Silva (Oklahoma Baptist University '08), guys who are just beginning their professional careers?
AH: All those guys are fully aware that I am here to help and to guide them in the right direction. I am beginning my 33rd season [of professional soccer] here in Austin, so there's some experience to be had.
Adams and Callahan come from big schools so they obviously have some talent. Silva comes from a small school but is just as capable as the other two. All three have a chance to make a future for themselves in this great game, but everyone thinks they can make it. The ones who put in the hard work are the guys who have a chance.
ESPNsoccernet: What is the level of play in USL-1 compared to other leagues?
AH: There is a lot of parity here. So far [the Aztex] have played the Minnesota Thunder and the Vancouver Whitecaps, two USL-1 playoff teams from last season. Both were well organized. Both had good athletes.
Our league will get stronger as more and more players see it as a viable alternative to MLS. And with MLS dropping their reserve league, it closes the gap more. Lyle Adams is a guy who was drafted by MLS and ended up here. He has enough confidence and enough ability to play in Europe, but the thing with these young guys heading to Europe is that they are not all that young over there. In European terms, 22 is not young. At that age I had already played in a ton of matches.
To really compare the leagues all you have to do is look at the successes of Puerto Rico in the Champions League and Charleston in the U.S. Open Cup. We continue to get better, to get closer -- the only real difference between the leagues now is the designated player. We haven't got that, but besides it, there's not much difference.
ESPNsoccernet: How has being in the U.S. for the 2008 Premier Development League season helped you so far in coaching the 2009 USL-1 team?
AH: Last year it was vital for me to be here to assess the league and to see what I was in store for. During that period I got around the league a bit. I got to see Portland and Vancouver, a few of the rivalries in USL-1.
The Premier Development League, some of the really good teams are very strong. There's a lot of talent there, guys who would otherwise get overlooked. For me, it was invaluable to be here to see that standard and assess it all.
ESPNsoccernet: What enticed you to come to the U.S. to coach?
AH: I had been to the States a number of times during the preseason and postseason. I always liked America. Phil [Rawlins], the owner of the Aztex, was a director at my hometown club, Stoke City. He came to me with the idea of starting a club with no name, no colors, no stadium and I liked the idea. I thought, yeah, I'd like to get into something like that -- to grow something that can become successful.
ESPNsoccernet: What do you miss the most about being in England?
AH: I miss much, but I also have a great standard of living here. Nothing can replicate three o'clock on Saturday in England -- the feeling you get when you walk into a stadium in the UK. The game never switches off there. It is the glue that keeps it all together. I miss match days in England, but the U.S. gives me other things.
ESPNsoccernet: What, besides yourself, do England and Austin, Texas have in common?
AH: The greenery. People who have never been to Austin wouldn't know, and it took me by surprise as well, but Austin is very green. It reminds me of back home, where we get so much rain that everything is very green. Here, we don't have the rain, but it is still very green.
ESPNsoccernet: The Aztex home opener was on USLlive.com. What was the atmosphere like in person?
AH: We had a terrific opening gate, 5,000 people. We had Chantico's Army, our supporters' group, out there banging drums and singing, trying to replicate the European atmosphere. They're a diverse group made up of Americans, English, a few Irish. The best part was the people who came out and didn't know what to expect, never had been to a match before and came away loving it.
ESPNsoccernet: What are your goals for the Aztex in their first USL-1 season?
AH: Obviously, everything is new, so there is a bit of a learning curve. Hopefully by the end of the year we will be in the playoff race. I would consider our first season tremendously successful if we earned a spot in the playoffs.
ESPNsoccernet: Who was the toughest player you ever faced?
AH: It pains me to say it but to me it was the Liverpool guys of the 80s: Mark Lawrenson, a central defender. For two or three years he was one of the top-drawer footballers in the game, quick and tall, a fantastic player.
ESPNsoccernet: What did you look for in players when putting together the Aztex's first roster?
AH: We tried to get a well-balanced group together. We brought in a few players from England with some experience, three or four PDL guys and a few from college. We wanted to get a mix of everything, younger players especially, a few of which I believe will go on to play in Europe.
ESPNsoccernet: Anything else you want to add?
AH: Just that we believe that the sport has a bright future in [North America]. Look at the crowds in Seattle and Toronto. In Austin, we understand we are at the beginning of a long journey, and I'm glad I am here to help the sport grow. In 10 years I really believe that the U.S. could be a major player at the club level.