SANFORD, Fla. — When the three Orlando City rookies entered this year, they spoke often about a simple plan for their first MLS season — make an impact as soon as possible.
Rookies Benji Michel, Santiago Patiño and Kamal Miller first began talking about that impact during their first preseason symposium. At the time, all three players were still caught up in adjusting to their first days as professional athletes.
Now, after earning starts, netting goals and settling into reliable starting positions, that feeling of awe has begun to fade into something more comfortable.
“We used to talk about it a lot,” Michel said. “We were just like, ‘Damn. We’re here.’ Now it’s normal. We’re here, so we’re focused on what we can we do to help the team out. ”
As strikers, Patiño and Michel have both found their footing as goal scorers, particularly when coming off the bench. Miller’s challenge was different as he worked to build the team’s confidence he was ready to factor into the backline.
For Miller, that cue didn’t take long — it came in his first game, when he was named a starter.
“Playing a rookie on opening day of the season says enough,” Miller said. “It’s been great knowing that the boss and the organization believe in me. It’s an honor. I enjoy it. It’s what I dreamed of.”
Since then, Miller has started in 13 games, moving to left back to fill in when João Moutinho suffered injuries. Although Miller has become an important cog in the Lions’ backline, one of the most significant parts of Miller’s rookie year has taken place away from Orlando — his new role with the Canadian national team. The defender was called up to the Canadian national team again this week, this time for the team’s Oct. 15 match against the U.S.
Miller’s selection for this match reflects the way he’s catapulted onto his national team’s radar. Although the defender earned scattered call-ups at the youth level starting at the age of 15, he was never at the forefront of the international team’s development. Before this year, his only appearance for the program came during the 2017 CONCACAF Under-20 championship.
In his first year as a professional, Miller was brought into the senior squad in March, then earned his first senior cap three months later during the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Although he has yet to start for Canada, the rookie has quickly become a reliable feature on the national team.
This recent call-up is another step up in expectation for Miller. He’ll join the team for a rivalry match that could offer Canada a chance to reach the Nations League final on the way to clinching a World Cup bid. Canadian national team coach John Herdman said he viewed the match as a “cup final.”
To Orlando City coach James O’Connor, the Lions’ success on the international stage reflects club’s player development success. He places emphasis on the growth of young players, including Miller.
“We take great pride in Kamal,” O’Connor said. “He’s gone from someone who was a complete unknown in college to now a full international with the Canadian national team. You take pride in that and you encourage him to stay on that trajectory.”
As a rookie, Miller said the key to his successful season has come from embracing the fact he still has plenty to learn. Veteran centerbacks Lamine Sané and Robin Jannson have both taken the time to advise him throughout practices and games.
The best challenge, however, still comes from his fellow rookies, who push and tease each other throughout training.
“We challenge each other every day,” Michel said. “I run at him, try to make him better and he tries to defend me. It’s always good, because he’s a solid defender.”
It’s easy for a rookie to force plays, pushing up too high or tackling too hard and thus leaving himself open to a counter-attack. At the same time, inexperience can translate into uncertainty.
For Miller, the focus of this season has been finding a balance.
“[I’m] building my confidence, that belief in myself that I can play at this level,” Miller said. “There’s been moments where I’ve been really good, and there’s been moments where I’ve been hesitant. I’m learning to play free and not worry about the consequences.”