Men's Soccer

Inside Kamal Miller’s rise to college soccer stardom

Paul Schlesinger | Asst. Photo Editor

Kamal Miller has been the core of Syracuse's defense since he arrived two years ago and could become the team's next first rounder in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft

Teammates mobbed Kamal Miller when he evened the score late in Syracuse’s final regular season game of 2016. The then-sophomore had anchored the SU backline throughout the season and, in the game, stopped several runs. In the 36th minute, Miller chopped a low liner in the back of the net. He ran away from the goal and blew a kiss to his mother, crying in the stands.

“This one’s for you,” he mouthed to her, because before the game, Miller told her in his apartment that he’d score for her.

Miller is the core of Syracuse’s three-back defense, and he has emerged as one of the best players in college soccer. It is likely that the junior, who may play with the Canadian Under-20 National Team at points this fall, will be selected near the top of the first round in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft.

The 6-foot, 185-pound Toronto native has started in all 47 of Syracuse’s games since arriving to campus in 2015. In high school, his grades and school attendance slipped, and he didn’t have serious college aspirations until the 11th grade. Now, he’s focused. He’s driven to win, to prove himself on college soccer’s biggest stage, to play professionally, and it all powers him in what he said is almost surely his final season for No. 8 Syracuse (2-0).

“Looking back on where I’m from, it’s a place where a lot of guys tend to go to waste,” Miller said. “I’ve seen good talents go (to waste) due to stuff they shouldn’t have been involved with. I’ve stayed in a good spot.

“Finally getting in touch with a school that believed in me in Syracuse,” he added, “it really pushed me to do well. It put a light in my head.”

The SU proposal forced him into becoming a better student. When he recognized playing professional soccer in Europe right out of high school was a stretch, he realized the quickest path to earning a salary in professional soccer would be through college. That, he figured, would give him the best opportunity to help out his single mother.

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Bryan Cereijo | Staff Photographer

The first indication of Miller’s dominance came one morning when he was 4 years old. In the 10 minutes it took his parents to grab Tim Hortons coffee, Miller netted two goals. Over the next 14 years, he bounced balls off the walls and floors in the house, spending most weekend nights either at soccer games or in his room watching the sport.

“Kamal’s from the ‘hood and he could have made excuses,” Carmine Isacco, Miller’s club coach who is also the head coach at York University, said. “But he went out of his way to make soccer and school a priority.”

The driving force behind Miller is the woman who at times worked two or three jobs to provide for his soccer aspirations.

His mother, Sauzette, paid for Kamal’s club soccer teams, where he stood out enough to gain interest from about 50 colleges, his coaches said. He turned down offers from Penn State and Michigan to play for Ian McIntyre at Syracuse. This way, his mother would be within driving distance. At SU, he calls her every day.

As a little boy, Miller refused to go to bed until his mother got home, about 9:30 p.m. Miller camped at the door with a blanket and waited for her to walk through the doors. He didn’t budge, because he needed a hug before bed.

“I don’t want you to work two jobs,” he told her. “I want to … help you one day.”

One of Miller’s former coaches, Patrice Gheisar, introduced him to the possibility of playing collegiately. Before he started the 11th grade, Miller’s grade average stood around 50 on a Toronto grading scale, equivalent to a GPA well below 2.0. “Bad attendance, no desire,” Gheisar said. In 10th grade, a former SU assistant saw him play. It was then that Miller recognized grades could prevent him from playing college soccer.

SU offered Miller as a junior, but Miller said he was unsure whether he’d be eligible academically. He retook ninth and 10th grade math and English classes to gain eligibility. He missed practices to take night classes twice per week. Because he bounced from class to practice to class some evenings, he showed up to practices and games hungry. When he arrived to practice, he grabbed the first snack available.

“I looked at Kamal one day and the kid barely had any water,” Gheisar said. “He said, ‘That’s all I’ve had: bread and baloney.’ There were pains in him.”

McIntyre, SU’s eighth-year head coach who has turned the program around, visited Miller about once per month his senior year. He came to his practices to check on the lefty whom he envisioned would turn into a looming wall in front of the 18-yard box. McIntyre asked about his family, but Miller and his coach said that McIntyre mostly wanted to check in on Miller’s grades. Many times, he visited without a heads-up.

“For Kamal, especially under Patrice, there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Isacco said. “Playing at Syracuse and in the MLS became real. He had every chance to fail and he didn’t.”

During Miller’s senior year, his club team played Syracuse in a friendly inside the Ensley Athletic Center. Miller found himself taking a penalty kick with the score knotted at one. He grooved the shot to beat the Orange.

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That initial impression did not fade. Miller proved himself early, breaking into the starting lineup by the 2015 season opener. Amid the program’s first-ever College Cup run, he rendered Clemson’s top striker a non-factor in the national semifinal. The past two summers, he took classes at SU. Last year, on an SU team ranked as high as No. 1 in the country, he teamed up with Miles Robinson for what teammates called, “The Beasts of the Back” because opposing forwards rarely found space behind them.

Miller said he does all this for his mother. He has a promise he intends to keep.

“She is his heartbeat,” Kameshia Broome, his older sister, said. “Everything he does is for her.”

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