TORONTO — Throughout Saturday night’s match against Toronto FC, defender Kamal Miller listened for one voice among the thousands of fans roaring in the stands of BMO Field — his mom.
Her voice cut through the crowd, and he could pick it out clearly among the thousands of fans cheering for the opposing team. She cheered along with a band of Miller’s friends and family as the rookie lined up for kickoff in his Orlando City kit, standing on a field only 20 minutes from his hometown of Scarborough, Ontario.
For Miller, earning a place in the starting lineup on Saturday meant more than a normal game — it was the another realization of a lifelong dream.
“Growing up, it was always a dream to play an MLS game here,” Miller said. “I’m happy that I was able to get that done. It was just a very special moment for me.”
Serving as the National Soccer Stadium for the Canadian national team, BMO Field holds a special place for Canadian players like Miller. As he rose through the ranks of the Canadian national team — earning his first senior call-up in March and making his international debut in the Gold Cup in June — Miller has savored each opportunity to return to Canada and play on his home soil. The chance to celebrate Saturday’s critical draw against Toronto with his family made the night special for the rookie.
Miller moved into Saturday’s starting lineup after starting left back João Moutinho suffered a hamstring injury in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against Atlanta United. Throughout his rookie season, Miller has filled in behind Moutinho, which has created an inconsistent flow of game play for the young defender. He sat out six straight games midseason, then started three when Moutinho suffered an injury, then saw off-and-on playing time throughout the past two weeks.
Miller said he approaches each game as if he’s starting, ready to step up into that role even if he isn’t called upon.
“It’s kind of just a habit that we have throughout our team,” Miller said. “We always talk about next man up and today I was the next man up. Throughout the week we all push each other very hard, so I felt comfortable just sliding in there and doing a good job.”
That mentality helped earn Miller a spot on the backline against Toronto. Coach James O’Connor said he feels comfortable working the rookie into play even in high-stakes situations like Saturday night, when Orlando City faced a Toronto team directly ahead of it in the Eastern Conference standings.
To keeper Brian Rowe, Miller’s presence is as calming as any veteran outside back on the team. Although he wasn’t quite able to connect in distribution, Miller launched long passes behind the Toronto backline, seeking out striker Dom Dwyer on the counter-attack. Even in a defensively focused situation like Saturday’s match, Rowe noted that Miller has the ability to redirect a defensive play into a transition attack on the offensive end.
“It’s just his composure,” Rowe said. “He’s [got] a great foot on the ball, he’s a great outlet for us. He’s able to connect, kind of slow the ball down when we need him. Defensively, he did a great job on his marks.”
As Toronto FC picked up the pressure in the second half, launching a full-on assault on the backline and taking 14 shots, Miller grounded himself in the presence of the veterans who have guided him throughout the season. He stuck close to centerbacks Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson, holding tight to the defensive shape even as Toronto furiously sought after a game-winning goal.
Even when the pressure intensified in the 77th minute after Toronto FC scored on a deflected free kick following a foul, Miller found support from his peers on the backline.
“We have a lot of veteran players, and Lamine and Robin are rocks back there,” Miller said. “We know we just gotta stay close by them, listen to their calls, listen to their communication and as a group we’ll be fine.”
Throughout the season, Orlando City has repeated the same mantra from top to bottom — “next man up.” Those words are repeated before and after every game, a reminder that every player from the top to the bottom of the roster is expected to be willing to contribute at any moment of any game.
Young players made critical contributions Saturday, as Miller locked down the left flank of the defense and rookie Benji Michel slotted home the team’s only goal. The team’s three rookies have proven themselves throughout the season.
As his team enters the final stretch of the season, facing down nine games that will decide whether Orlando City earns its first playoff berth, O’Connor said the team’s youth will bring a jolt of energy.
“The younger players that we’re managing to bring through, we’re very pleased with their attitude, their application and the level of performance that they’ve all given,” O’Connor said. “Kamal comes in at left back and slides in there no problem. I’m very proud of him. For a player to be making his debut in MLS this year, to play the way he has when called upon this year has been excellent.”