It’s salt in the wound today as Adrian Heath is likely facing disciplinary action after stepping on the pitch during Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy.
Just shy of the 49’ mark, two balls ended up on the pitch near a United player about to take a throw in just in front of Heath’s coach’s box. Not one to sit by while spare equipment might (in his view) get in the way of his team’s effort at a comeback, Heath left his coach’s box, jogged left to a spot that was almost directly in front of the fourth official, entered the pitch and kicked a ball off the field before returning to his box.
What’s the Big Deal?
If you’re not familiar with how the league regulates coaches during a match, this whole thing may seem pretty benign. He hardly entered the field at all, and did so while his own team had possession and the ball was out of play. Additionally, he didn’t display any malicious intent, right? What’s the big deal?
Here’s the thing: according to the league’s disciplinary committee, this is a huge deal.
The coach’s box exists for a specific and critical reason. Coaches may be a ubiquitous sight at soccer matches, they are viewed as a different class of attendee than the players that are allowed to enter the field during play.
Coaches are allowed to shout tactical guidance to the 11 on-field players, make substitution decisions, and - if needed - confer with officials. What they are not allowed to do is leave their coach’s box and step foot on the field. You may remember seeing team medics entering the field when a player is injured but most of us won’t be able to recall a time when a head coach did the same.
The reason this is a relatively rare occurrence is that the league’s disciplinary committee has cracked down on even the most benign instances of coaches entering the field of play for the past few years.
For example, D.C. United Head Coach Ben Olsen was fined and suspended for a game last April for doing almost the exact same thing Heath did on Sunday. In the 80th minute, an extra ball was resting just a foot into the field of play. Seeing play moving away from the ball and no official in the area to remove the ball, Olsen left his coach’s box and stepped onto the field to retrieve the ball.
That brief step into play was enough evidence for the league’ disciplinary committee to throw the book at Olsen and keep him out of a match.
Heath Hasn’t Learned
Here’s the real reason I think Heath is almost certainly going to be riding the pine when the Loons welcome Orlando on Saturday: this ain’t his first rodeo.
Just last May - hardly a year ago - when he was still head coach of Orlando, Heath stepped onto the field of play in the 54th minute to grab a dead ball and toss it back to the player about to take a throw-in. Again, his actions there did not impede play (in fact, it sped it up) and did not give either team an advantage. On the contrary, he was simply getting the ball to where it should be.
But if it isn’t abundantly clear to you by now, I’ll say it plainly: the league doesn’t gauge intent when considering this particular infraction. While there are a hundred different flavors of fouls, a coach stepping onto the pitch is seen in one way and one way only by the league: as a punishable offense.
The end result of his actions in May 2016 was exactly what I predict we’ll see this week: a one-match suspension and an undisclosed fine.
Who Will Fill the Shoes
If Heath is sidelined for Saturday’s Orlando City match, it begs an interesting question that will be a first for the young Loons side: who will step into the head coaching role in lieu of Adrian Heath?
There’s historical precedence for this, too. Last year, with Heath barred from joining the team for Orlando’s matchup against Sporting KC, assistant coach Mark Watson took over the duties.
Mark Watson ... now there’s a familiar name! Watson, now an assistant coach with Minnesota, was one of the people Heath attracted to United to join him after he signed on late last year.
It appears likely that Watson may be tapped once again to run matchday operations for the squad if Heath is indeed punished as he was in 2016. Unfortunately for the Loons, Watson currently holds a 0-2 record after falling 5-3 against NYCFC in July 2015 and 2-1 against Sporting KC last May.
A Bitter Pill to Swallow
All that to say, Heath has no excuse for stepping foot onto the pitch on Sunday. He was put through the ringer for this exact infraction just last year and evidently did not learn from the mistake.
The tough part about a situation like this is that it is entirely, 100% preventable. There was zero reason for him to step foot out of the coach’s box and jeopardize his availability at the next week’s match like he did. In fact, professional referees wear communication gear for precisely this reason. A much better approach would have been to point out the misplaced equipment to the fourth official and hope that he/she would radio it to the center referee.
With a ban for precisely this behavior so fresh in his mind, Heath should have known better than to leave the box and put the entire team in jeopardy for something so small.
Update: Tuesday evening
Well, well, well, Orlando beat reporter Alicia DelGallo is reporting that Heath received a warning for stepping on the pitch during last week’s Minnesota - LA match and will not be suspended for this coming weekend’s Orlando match.
I'm told Adrian Heath won't be suspended for Minnesota's match against Orlando City. He received warning for stepping onto pitch, per club.— Alicia Rose DelGallo (@OSAliciaD) May 23, 2017
In a season so full of bad breaks for the Loons, it’s nice to see one go their way. On this, I’m happy to have been wrong.
See you Saturday, Inchy. Come on you Loons!