EXCLUSIVE: Canada’s Kamal Miller on his unconventional route to the World Cup, the determination to prove people wrong… and why the trip to Qatar can spark a soccer revolution in the Great White North
- Kamal Miller worked his way up through the Canadian youth academy system
- That led to an offer from Syracuse University and is now a Team Canada starter
- Using the platform of this World Cup, Miller hopes to improve the system of youth development in Canada and prove to the world they’re here to compete
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- Click here for the latest World Cup 2022 news, fixtures, live action and results
In pure betting terms, Canada is not a favorite to win the World Cup. But unbeknownst to the rest of us, the Reds have been laying the ground work for something big.
With a team consisting of young players and veterans alike, this country is ready to make an impact as they play in their first World Cup since 1986.
One of those young players is starting center back Kamal Miller. The Scarborough, Ontario native is a testament to perseverance, talent, and determination.
He’s also a testament to the success of the unconventional route of developing elite soccer players through the American collegiate system. On Wednesday against Belgium, Miller and teammate Tajon Buchanan are projected to play. In the process, they will become the first players from Syracuse University to ever appear at a World Cup.
Before he shipped out to Qatar, Miller and his coaches spoke to Dailymail.com about his journey, his time in college, what it means to make the World Cup, and how he wants this tournament to turn Canada into the next soccer powerhouse.
Kamal Miller is ready to shock world and transform Canada into next great global soccer force
Miller took up the sport young and began playing as many of us do: just for fun.
‘At first, it was kind of just like, extracurricular, there was no real intention to be a pro. My parents really didn’t expect that at all,’ Miller remembered.
‘It was kind of a thing with a bunch of my cousins and family friends, we kind of just played in the summertime and use it as an event to get the family together at the games and have fun.’
Once he began to take things more seriously, Miller realized that there wasn’t an easy way to get noticed due to the lack of available resources and elite club teams. However, once he found one – and started playing in games with older kids, he began to believe that a dream of playing in college or beyond was possible.
‘I saw a lot of my older teammates getting scholarships and guys who were much older in their late 20s, who went to school… encouraging me and telling me I’m good enough.’
After spending time in Canadian club teams, Miller (5) got an offer from Syracuse University
That led to an offer from Syracuse University – which plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a division that is considered the best in college soccer with 15 combined national championships.
Miller’s play caught the eye of scouts who recommended him to Syracuse head coach Ian McIntyre, who just helped the Orange win their second ACC title in its history this year.
‘We’ve got some good relationships with coaches that I trust in Canada and had the opportunity to go and watch him play in a showcase,’ McIntyre told us when asked about how he first heard of Miller. ‘So a coach that I trusted, knew how we played and the style and thought the Kamal would be a good fit for us.
‘And he was this very unpolished kind of gem. Someone that physically, tactically, technically even, wasn’t the finished article as a young player. But Coach (Patrice) Gheiser just loved him as a person and… felt [he] had an extremely high ceiling.
‘He’s a tough kid as well from his background growing up.’
Miller was brought to the team under coach Ian McIntyre (far right) to play in the ACC
Miller admitted: ‘At the time, I didn’t have too much interest from a lot of other schools. There were a lot of half offers and offers to smaller schools, but I knew I wanted to play in the ACC. And so yeah, we just kept the relationship open. And then when I finally got on campus, it was a deal breaker for me.’
While Syracuse is notorious for being a cold, snowy place – not unlike Canada – it’s that desire to play in the ACC that drew him to upstate New York.
‘Just being known as the best conference and producing the best pros and being the most competitive conference.
‘Every team has the possibility to do well and has the chance to win the national championship that year. So just being around this environment and playing these teams week in and week out, that was important for me.’
As a freshman, Miller was able to be a major contributor to a run to the College Cup semifinals
Miller got a chance to experience that drive for a national championship in his freshman year in 2015. That year, Miller and the Orange – with future USMNT defender Miles Robinson included – won the school’s first ACC crown and appeared in the College Cup semifinals. There, they fell to eventual runners-up Clemson.
Kamal describes his freshman year as a ‘dream come true,’ but admits the transition from starting college to winning a conference title to fighting for a national championship was daunting.
‘It was kind of a wake up call… being a freshman and playing against four or five year veterans from the other schools… that have so much experience,’ Miller recalls.
‘So it was a tough transition for sure. But I enjoyed every minute of it. My freshman year, I always say this, my freshman year was my favorite year. And yeah, that team was just unbelievable.’
In those College Cup semifinals, the Orange fell to ACC rivals Clemson in a close affair
Even though he was a freshman, players like Kamal and Robinson were expected to perform and become major contributors to the team.
‘Just some of the first meetings, coach Mac’s saying “freshmen don’t exist on this team. Like, you might be new here, but you’re not a freshman, we’re gonna hold you to the same standards as the seniors.”,’ Miller remembered.
‘And it’s like, “wow, like, they’re not going to cut us any slack.” Like, right away, you got to be a leader, you got to lead by example, you gotta set the tone and represent the soccer team very well around around campus.’
Both Miller and fellow Canadian teammate Tajon Buchanan will be the first players from Syracuse University’s soccer program to play at a World Cup match
In addition to competing against some of the most talented, highly-recruited players in the nation, transitioning to college life required its own adjustment. Finding a way to combine training, practice, games, classes, and just living the life of a college student was an always-tough balance.
‘Pretty much it was class from 8:00am to noon, one o’clock around there. And then I believe training was two to four-ish and then most of the times you had one more class to go to after training in the evening.
‘So, it was like a full time schedule and that was a lot different for me. Just getting to campus and having so much responsibility so early. It was tough to adjust to, but we were surrounded by so many great people who worked in (Manley) Fieldhouse and at the Student Center. They made the transition pretty smooth.’
For those used to an club academy based system, the concept of going off to the college ranks to work your way up to a pro contract may seem backwards. But many of the best players in CONCACAF – especially in the United States – have built their reputation in college.
It’s something that McIntyre – the Basildon born manager – can attest to.
‘There’s a role to play for college sports [in developing elite footballers], there always has been. There’s been good players that have played overseas and a couple of them I do think in the World Cup,’ McIntyre believes.
‘We’re certainly not the reason that they’re competing in the World Cup. We’re a small piece of the journey. But we take tremendous pride in that. And to… help them continue to become the best version of themselves.’
McIntyre says he takes ‘tremendous pride’ in being ‘a small piece of the journey’ for his players
After three years in college without getting any closer to winning a national title, Miller chose to declare for the MLS draft in 2018 – the same year sophomore Syracuse teammate Tajon Buchanan was picked ninth overall by the New England Revolution.
Miller got picked in the second round by Orlando City SC, where he saw limited playing time over two full seasons. In 2021, after being picked up by the expansion Austin FC, he was moved to CF Montreal – where he became a starter and a staple in their lineup.
‘It feels like the perfect fit for me,’ Miller says. ‘There’s a few other clubs that I like and I feel like I could fit in there. But the way we play in Montreal really brings out qualities in my game and has allowed me to thrive and show the league what I can do and also – very importantly – raised my stock with the national team.’
Miller was drafted in the second round by Orlando City SC before being moved to Montreal
While still in Orlando, Miller received his first call up for a CONCACAF Nations League qualifying match against French Guiana. Even now, when he was a pro for a while, Miller still described that moment as surreal.
‘I had coach Herman’s numbers saved on my phone… and I was just relaxing at home, and I see his name pop up on my phone,’ Miller remembered.
‘And he told me I’ll be part of the group for the upcoming camp and I should be proud… and how much of an honor it is to represent my country. It was a very special moment for me.’
Miller says he was contacted by Canada’s coach John Herdman who told him of his first call-up
He never touched the field in that game, but just a few months later, he would make his first appearance as a substitute against Cuba.
‘At half time one of the defender coaches came up to me and told me “just be ready, you never know’ and he said it was a smile. So I had a feeling that I might get in but I still really didn’t believe it,’ Miller recalled.
‘When my name got called it was crazy. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time, like tying my boots smiling. While (Canadian defender) Doneil Henry’s jogging off the field, I’m smiling. We’re looking at each other laughing.’
After getting his first start in the CONCACAF Nations League qualifiers, more chances came
Incidentally, Cuba would be the opponent Canada faced when Miller got his first start with the national team as well.
‘I didn’t really expect to start that game either. I knew we had a few injuries at left back I think (defender) Sam Adekugbe was hurt at the time and not in camp. So, I knew it was a possibility that I play.
‘Being in the pregame meeting and seeing my name and the starting XI was special for me. I had a lot of family as I game I think had 20, 30 family members in the crowd for that game. So yeah, just singing my national anthem. That’s the ultimate goal singing the anthem at the start of the game. So that first experience, I had goosebumps.’
Fast forward to 2021 and Canada is the class of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying – with Miller getting consistent minutes starting at left center back.
They proved that when they defeated the United States 2-0 at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton, Ontario. He describes that game as ‘still one of the best days of my life.’
‘There was so much talk about how the US was going to roll over us and they have too much for us, and it’s going to be the same as always,’ Miller says with a smile.
‘But we really took a different approach to that game and went out and press them.’
From there, the train never stopped and with a 4-0 win over Jamaica later in qualifying – featuring a goal in the 44′ from teammate Buchanan – Les Rouges clinched their first World Cup appearance in 36 years.
During World Cup qualifying, Miller and Canada pulled off a major upset over the United States
‘Throughout the stadium, you just look and see so many familiar faces,’ Miller remembered.
‘People you played against as kids, friends from your club teams, coaches that you played against, coaches from your club teams, your friends, family. It just felt like, like a whole family vibe in the stadium.
‘It felt like the perfect moment. All of us had so much friends and family there and yeah, I was crying after the game.’
Even when this interview was conducted just a few weeks before a ball was kicked in Qatar, Miller was still processing his emotions and feelings about being called into the team and qualifying.
‘It’s still tough to put into words. I still can’t believe it. I’m a guy where a lot of things hit me pretty late. So it hasn’t fully hit me yet, but just see what it meant to the country – not necessarily myself – to see what it meant for Canada soccer fans. Everywhere. Everyone has so much pride to be a Canada soccer fan nowadays.
With a 4-0 win over Jamaica, Canada qualified for its first men’s World Cup berth since 1986
Getting there was easy. Dominating the game, winning it, advancing out of the group stage will be a lot tougher for these Canadians – especially considering they play the likes of Belgium and Croatia.
It could lead to a lot of people starting to count out Canada before they take to the field. Even their kit sponsor Nike failed to provide the Canadians with a new kit for this tournament.
‘It’s definitely disappointing seeing all the other countries reveal their new jerseys and us not having one, but it is what it is,’ Miller said.
That feeling of an underdog mentality has been driving this Canada team – and Miller especially. To prepare, he said he’d been taking off two kilos in the gym each day to prepare for playing world class strikers.
Miller was chosen for the trip to Qatar and has been staying in shape to keep up his fitness
This is a time of great change for Canada. In respect to soccer, the nation was considered a step stool for years, yet now they have reached a World Cup through development, merit, and pure footballing excellence.
Miller says that changes need to be made to ensure that things stay that way – and possibly even improve.
‘I think what I want most from this World Cup other than to win… is to turn on the lights and turn on the emergency alarm at Canada Soccer and at these clubs at the youth level that our youth development system needs to be so much better,’ Miller said.
Miller (4) and Buchanan (11) will play together as they did in central New York years ago
‘We have such a high participation for soccer for both boys and girls. But yeah, over the years, it hasn’t really been amounting to anything.
‘My hope is to just keep the generations getting stronger and stronger. Get these kids in more professional environments at a younger age so they have a chance to go be a Champions League star and not only an MLS or CONCACAF star.
‘They can reach goals that I never thought was possible. I just want to be one of the pioneers to make it possible for them.’
With this trip to Qatar, Miller hopes that he and his teammates can inspire change in Canada
At club level, the problems in Canada are similar to the problems in elite youth soccer in the United States. The sport is dominated by big clubs propped up by richer families who invest a lot of money into their child’s development.
But through Miller’s background, he knows what it’s like to want to strive to get out – and he wants that for other kids in Canada as well.
‘Kids at the smaller clubs are just as talented, but might be getting held back because they don’t have all the resources and things they need. So I think [Canada Soccer] need to do a better job at leveling the playing field for every kid have an equal opportunity.’
He hopes to shine a spotlight on underfunded club teams and even the playing field for all
All of these efforts would lead into the 2026 World Cup that Canada will be co-hosting alongside Mexico and the United States.
It seems that Miller and Canada will forgive any slights or disrespect now, but he wants things to change for the next tournament.
‘I think going into that 2026 tournament I want all the pundits and analysts to be looking at Team Canada as a team who is penciled in to win the World Cup or go very far,’ Miller hopes.
‘I think we have… we accomplished this in such a short amount of time. In four years, I think there’ll be a lot more time to lay the foundation and play against bigger opponents in international windows and really get the hype around our team going.’
This will all build up to when Canada hosts the 2026 World Cup – one Miller hopes to be part of
But that’s all then, and this is now.
Miller’s done a lot to get here, so has Canada. He’s spent time in the academies of Toronto, the lecture halls and practice fields of Syracuse, and the stadiums of Orlando, Montreal, and beyond across the world.
He’s allowed to feel confident, because he’s done something that none of us will likely ever accomplish. And now he’s here, there’s only one thing left for him and Canada to do.
‘The expectation is to win the World Cup,’ Miller says, determined.
‘If that’s not the expectation from any of my teammates, I don’t think they should be getting on the plane. That’s what we’re going there to do.
‘Like you said, everyone’s writing us off. We’re going there to shock the world, I guess. But we wouldn’t be shocking ourselves. I guess we will just shock the people who don’t know our team too well.’
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