ST. JOHN’S, Canada— Growing up in Canada, watching soccer on Saturday afternoons in the 2000’s, Kamal Miller knew all about Old Trafford and the success of Manchester United.
What he might not have known was just how quickly he would cross paths on the pitch with one of the great Red Devils of that era.
After being selected 27th overall by Orlando City in last year’s MLS SuperDraft, Miller signed his first professional contract just weeks after the club inked Portuguese winger Nani to a shocking Designated Player deal from Sporting CP.
The former Manchester man made an immediate impact in Major League Soccer in 2019 with 12 goals and an all-star game appearance in his first season for Orlando, leaving a lasting impression on Miller and the rest of the organization.
“You can tell the effect he’s had on the team, the staff, the city,” Miller told Waking the Red of his club captain’s impact. “Everyone sees the level he’s reached and what he has experienced.”
Few footballers can match what the now 33-year-old Nani has been able to achieve to date in his playing career. A four-time Premier League title holder and Champions League winner with Manchester United, he also amassed over 100 appearances for Portugal all topped off with a Euro 2016 triumph.
For a young guy like Miller, the opportunity to play alongside such a decorated footballer doesn’t go unappreciated.
“He (Nani) is so good to have around the locker room, he pushes everyone to be better and he’s a winner,” said Miller. “He’s pretty much won everything there is in football, individually and with teams at the club level and the international level.”
The former Syracuse defender found his feet impressively in his first season in Orlando, picking up 14 starts in 16 appearances in 2019.
Despite establishing himself early on at the professional level, Miller admits on occasion he day dreams about the players his skipper once lined up alongside.
“I sometimes think about how he (Nani) was once receiving passes from defenders like Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, and now he’s receiving passes from me so that just pushes me to be my best.”
Before the soccer world came to a stand still, the 23-year-old defender was on the cusp of establishing himself with the national program.
Expected to be one of the leaders within the under-23 group tasked with getting Canada into the 2020 Olympic Games, Miller and Co. have been forced to put their bid for Tokyo on hold, a delay which he admits has been quite disappointing.
“I was looking forward to it, so, so much,” said Miller. “We have such a great group of guys, maybe one of Canada’s most experienced under 23 groups in a long time.”
While the let down of having to wait looms for now, the hunger for the squad to make good on their second chance next year remains.
“We’re all looking forward to it so much especially in a place like Tokyo, a place where most of us have never been before, it would have been an incredible experience.”
Having picked up five caps for Canada at the senior level, Miller has begun to build a strong relationship with head coach John Herdman who regularly checks in to see how the Pickering native is progressing.
Since taking over the program two years ago, Herdman has begun to build a new identity for the men’s program, one which includes more dialogue with the players when they are back with their clubs.
“It shows how much John cares,” said Miller. “And with me personally, I think he sees a lot of potential in me.”
Among the many topics discussed between the two is where Miller’s playing career might ultimately bring him. In Herdman’s mind, the top flight of European football could be in the young Canadian’s future if he continues to progress.
“He always talks to me about cracking one of those top five leagues in the world. He thinks I can do it one day, I just need to keep doing all the right things and keep going as a young player because there’s so much football ahead of me internationally and at the club level and I just need to ready for that opportunity when it comes.”
For now, Miller’s focus remains solely in Orlando where “the city has been dying for a playoff berth” having failed to get beyond the regular season in their first five years in the league.
As he looks for inspiration in his sophomore season to help get his side over the hump, Miller need not look any further than Nani.
“He (Nani) wants all of us to be winners, he tries to instill a winning mentality in our head and as he pushes towards the end of his career he’s still going strong. You look at him in training and how hard he’s pushing and he’s just a true role model to have around.”