when Kamal Miller joined Vaughan SC as a teenager, he was strong and aggressive with phenomenal ball skills for a centre-back. But he was also raw, and had a softer body type. He barely drank water or knew about nutrition, his club coaches said.
“He didn’t look like an athlete,” said Jordan Feliciano, one of his Vaughan coaches. “He was shorter, stockier, and for a centre-back these are the two worst character traits.”
But Patrice Gheisar, his other club coach, put it differently.
“If you didn’t know him, and you and I were walking the dog and we stopped at a football field to watch a game, when he was in 11th grade, we would have said ‘damn, that kid can play ‘,” Gheisar said. “But he had a bit too much of a love affair with the ball, and he was a bit out of shape.”
After landing at Syracuse, Miller continually improved his fitness and diet. He started every game but three in four years with the Orange. Now with MLS club CF Montreal, Miller started in the 2022 MLS All-Star game and is expected to start in Canada’s back line in the World Cup next week. Miller and former Syracuse teammate Tajon Buchanan, who both play for Canada, are the first Syracuse players to reach a World Cup.
“Just the other day we were in the locker room together walking onto the practice field,” former teammate John-Austin Ricks said. “And now I see them in Qatar for the World Cup.”
Buchanan left school early after signing a Generation Adidas contract, was selected in the top 10 of the MLS SuperDraft and signed a European deal.
But Miller stayed with Syracuse for four years, didn’t go in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft and wasn’t even protected by his club in the 2020 MLS expansion draft. His road to the World Cup has been driven by continuous fitness improvements, which began at Syracuse and are now at “unthinkable” levels, said Adnan Bakalovic, his former teammate.
Feliciano and Gheisar both said Miller’s physical tools got him far, but once he started playing above his age group, his lack of fitness held him back from his true potential.
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During his junior year in high school, SU’s head coach, Ian McIntyre, visited him regularly during the exhibition period in November, December and January. Miller worked on his fitness and his schoolwork to make sure he was academically eligible for his “dream school.” According to Gheisar, he attended night school to bring his average from the 55-60 range to the 85-90 range.
Miller immediately started for Syracuse, but Gheisar remembers getting scratched in his second career game against Bucknell. Previously, he was unable to execute an effective nutrition plan, but McIntyre provided support, Gheisar said. With Vaughan, it wasn’t a big deal if he was late for a workout because he had a long drive with traffic that could slow him down. But at Syracuse, he quickly learned the importance of sticking to a schedule, Gheisar said.
Miller improved tremendously in his freshman year, several teammates and his club coaches said. McIntyre repeatedly called out Miller for holding the ball too long in a game against BC during his freshman year, Bakalovic said. But Miller has worked on his one-on-one and two-down passing skills, and Ricks said he’s now one of the best center backs in the game at controlling the ball.
Vaughan built play almost entirely through the backs, which meant Miller almost exclusively played short passes instead of long ones. But when Vaughan scrimmaged Syracuse in the spring of Miller’s freshman year, Feliciano was in awe of Miller’s new skills. Miller thundered a 60-yard diagonal ball to change the game, something he had never done at Vaughan.
Miller practiced twice a day all year, but teammates and coaches both said his offseason work set him apart. He practiced with Vaughan over Christmas break, in addition to other tournaments with his friends. When he returned to Vaughan after Syracuse’s 2016 College Cup run, Feliciano said Miller’s increased dedication to fitness and diet was evident.
Miller spent his last two collegiate summers in Syracuse, working with strength coach Cory Parker and a rotating group of about five teammates. Jake Leahy, who lived with Miller both summers, said their daily routine consisted of waking up and going to the gym with Parker, followed by a nap and an afternoon workout.
His improved fitness has allowed him to do even more with the ball and maximize his natural abilities, Bakalovic said. He progressed better with the ball and even played outside back, which required a lot more up and down the pitch.
Before the MLS SuperDraft his senior year, Miller worked even more on his fitness, Leahy and Ricks said. Miller went to Manley and ran the stairs as well as the hurdles to improve his pace.
Miller moved into the second round of the MLS SuperDraft, where he was selected 29th overall by Orlando City SC. He started spending more time than ever on his fitness and diet. He started cooking for himself and even filmed a video during quarantine called Cooking with K Millz about making a day’s breakfast of a smoothie, omelet and pancakes.
But at Orlando City, he had a steep learning curve to adapt to Colombian head coach Óscar Pareja’s South American style of play. Pareja limited Miller’s potential, Ricks said. Miller was left unprotected in the 2020 MLS Expansion Draft and was selected by Austin FC before being immediately traded to CF Montreal. At CF Montreal he plays on the left side of a back three, just like at Syracuse.
Miller also faced obstacles when trying to move up the national team ranks. Gheisar practically had to beg Canada’s U20 head coach Rob Gale to give Miller a chance. Most of the players in the team followed the traditional route of playing for a club team’s reserve team. Miller was looked down upon for playing college football instead.
But his MLS performances have made him hard to ignore. Since debuting for the national team in 2019, he has grown into a reliable starting centre-back. Both Gheisar and Feliciano said European clubs will be watching his World Cup performance.
“His biggest problem at the time was probably just his fitness,” Bakalovic said. “You look at him now, and that’s no longer the case, it’s probably one of his greatest strengths.”
Photo courtesy of Canada Soccer
Published on November 17, 2022 at 12:58 am
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