A surprise starter against the US, Kamal Miller continues to make a case for himself in Nations League play, as the Orlando youngster stood out once again for Canada on Tuesday
A lot of the attention surrounding Canada’s big 2-0 victory over the US centred around tactics, mentality and goals, and rightfully so. With Les Rouges finding their first goals over the US in over a decade, it was another feather in the cap for their fine collection of offensive talent, who haven’t stopped scoring goals all year long.
Lost in all the hubbub, however, was that the Canadian defensive line managed to keep another clean sheet. After having a few hairy moments against lowly Cuba, while looking noticeably shaky this summer at the Gold Cup, they were solid on Tuesday against the US. Helped by a strong midfield performance, they did exactly what they had to, winning duals and mostly limiting the US to chances from the outside.
Despite having a makeshift backline, one that had only a combined 30 caps with the National Team before this game, Canada found a way to answer some of the questions that had been asked of them defensively.
“You look at the lineup and you’ve got, Richie Laryea with three caps, (Derek) Cornelius who’s been in and out of the MLS squad this year, always playing for us, and Vitoria who on a resurgence in his career. You couldn’t have written the script. And then there’s young Kamal Miller, fresh out of college last year, with a handful of MLS caps,” head coach John Herdman said after the game.
Combined with the experience of goalkeeper Milan Borjan and his 45 caps, they just found a way to get the job done, and they showed that they could definitely handle some of the tougher offensive tests that CONCACAF may end up offering. Defending is often a thing done within a group, so while the individuals don’t maybe carry some of the same shine that the forwards do, it can be fun to watch a defensive unit come together and work collectively like that.
“I mean that’s the sort of pride when you think about what we put together out there, how strong they stood to keep a clean sheet,” Herdman said. “And with this man (Milan Borjan) behind them, who stood up big in a big moment. I mean, it’s you’re buzzing as a coach when you see guys step into that next level of human performance and then binding them together as a group.”
“So I thought that it was an area we’ve been questioning and we’ve been questioned on, and those guys stepped forward. I think Kamal was still running around the dressing room, so it’s exciting for them.”
Speaking of Kamal Miller, the young 22-year-old rookie defender playing for Orlando in MLS, he stood up in a big way for Canada on Tuesday. Despite only having 16 appearances in his short MLS career, 14 of which as a starter, he played a big role for Canada in this game. Deployed as a left back, despite only moving out there from centre back earlier this summer for Orlando, he has quickly grown into the role for Canada.
He has offered up a strong presence on that left side for Canada in his two games so far at the position, as despite being a really strong defensive player, he is still comfortable with the ball at his feet. With a pass completion rate of 96% against the Americans, he helped Canada move the ball into the midfield and up to the forwards on several occasions, and made things happen when he pushed high up the field.
Against the Americans, he also added solidity to the backline to compensate for right back Richie Laryea’s offensive tendencies, doing well to keep up with Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin down the US’s right-hand side. Even though the duo found space a few times when their midfielders did get them the ball, Miller did a good job at closing them down and forcing them into poor crosses.
Given the nod by Herdman, Miller repaid the faith of his head coach with a strong performance, and he spoke glowingly of his manager after the game.
“Just ever since John (Herdman) took over, He has been focused on changing the identity of Canadian soccer,” Miller said to reporters after the game. “And step by step, every camp we’ve just been getting better and better, and we feel like we’re reaching new heights, we’re still not exactly where we want to be at, but we’re taking leaps and bounds every camp and tonight shows exactly what we can do.
Miller later added: “We know everyone here, on and off the field, the players, everyone in Canada, knows what John does for the program, the work he puts in, how calculated he is and everything. He put out this game plan, we went and executed it, so of course we wanted to get that win, and we did that tonight.”
It has given the youngster plenty of confidence heading into his second MLS season next year, as he and his Orlando side looks to finally make the leap up to the playoffs, something they have never done before. Despite having players like Kaka and Nani, they have just never managed to take that step, falling way behind their MLS peers.
New youngsters like Miller should change that narrative, however, and his performance against the US is a big reason why. Despite going up against some top-tier opposition, he was up to the challenge, and he showed that he will only add to those 3 caps in the future for his country. Considering that Orlando has always had struggles with defending, they’re surely feeling confident in what Miller will bring to them in his sophomore campaign.
“It feels great, we executed the game plan to perfection,” Miller said of the US game. “We went out, we knew exactly what we needed to do, and we got it done. The passion from everyone was amazing, from us on the field, to the guys on the bench, to the fans, everything was just amazing, perfect night.”
While Canada’s backline still isn’t quite where many would have hoped, as they just lack the star power the forwards have, they still find themselves in a good place. With Cornelius (21), Miller (22), Laryea (24), Doneil Henry (26) and Sam Adekugbe (24) all being 26 and under, there is still plenty of room for them to develop and maybe even start moving to Europe in the near future. While calls for players like Fikayo Tomori, the young Chelsea defender still eligible for Canada despite a recent call-up to England, won’t go away anytime soon, Canada is slowly building up a nice crop of youngsters themselves.
Especially at positions where players often hit their prime later than their attacking peers, with defenders often at their best around the ages of 27-32, there is still plenty of time for Canada to improve at the position ahead of 2022 and 2026. As their performance against the US showed, they can put together solid 90 minutes of play, now it’s just to improve on that and make it something consistent. The talent and experience will come with time, and games like the one this week will only help, with plenty more like it on the way.
“Just the confidence, the confidence we have in each other, we’re communicating throughout the game,” Miller said of his team’s defensive performance. “We all had each other’s back. The clean sheet is huge, throughout the week we’ve had meetings, just as all the defenders, in our backpack meetings, and we said clean sheets will win us these games, we know our front guys will get something, so we just got to do our part, and, and they’ll take care of business, so that’s what we did.”
But while this game was a huge momentum builder for the country, they still have to face the Americans in a month’s time, in a huge game at Miller’s home stadium in Orlando. If they can put together another solid 90 minutes of play, this time in enemy territory, teams around the region will start to take notice that these guys are for real.
So chalk up this first US victory as a success, and now look for Canada to find a way to make it double trouble in November against the Americans, with Miller and company leading the charge from the back towards the front. This team can score goals, and now as shown against the Americans, the defence can put together some good performances. The next big step? Doing so on a consistent basis, and that starts with a game-by-game approach, so now all eyes are on the US part 2.
“I feel like the tides are turning a little bit,” Miller said. “We know just tonight is one win, and one baby step, but we’re looking to take another step on November 15, where we’re going to prepare well for that game.”
“Again it’s going to be a new game, new challenge. So we’re going to go in there, looking to do the same.” he finished.
Up next: Canada vs USA, Friday, November 15th, 2019, 16:00 PST, 19:00 EST (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)
Cover Photo: Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer