National Writer: Charles Boehm

Kamal Miller opens up: Portland Timbers trade, Messi adventure & World Cup dreams


Kamal Miller knows how the sport works.

Soccer has carried the Canadian international all over North America and beyond, from childhood in the Toronto district of Scarborough to his NCAA days at Syracuse, then on to MLS stops at Orlando City SC, CF Montréal, then Inter Miami CF, not to mention sojourns in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup and just about every Concacaf port of call during his national team’s marathon qualification journey for that tournament.

The 2022 MLS All-Star had already been SuperDrafted, expansion-drafted, contract-optioned and traded long before Miami delivered him some unexpected news in the final days of 2023: Less than three months after signing him to a long-term contract extension through 2026, the Herons were shipping him to the Portland Timbers for a package of allocation money and an international roster spot.

“Pretty surprised by the whole thing,” Miller told at MLS Media Day in January. “Especially after signing an extension and the club being so adamant on having me there. And with the upcoming World Cup 2026 they were like, ‘Oh, we're so happy to have a player that is going to be there for Canada representing the club.’

“So it's all pretty much out of nowhere. But I understand why it had to happen. It's part of the business.”

Messi magic

The big center back thought he’d found a long-term home in south Florida. Playing for IMCF gave him the rare thrill of playing with Lionel Messi, an impeccable vantage point for the Argentine icon’s delirious, made-for-Hollywood arrival at the club.

“Euphoric, honestly,” Miller recalled. “You can't really write it or dream it any other way, especially his entrance, the way he came in and scored that free kick [a last-second Leagues Cup match-winner vs. Cruz Azul on his debut].

“It was crazy,” he added. “I was on the bench when he scored, I got subbed out that game and we're just taking bets on the bench like, ‘You think he’ll score?’ And then boom, right over the wall. We were like, this is not real.”

That fateful moment sparked the Herons on a run to the Leagues Cup trophy, the club’s first-ever hardware, lifting both the spirits and the profile of everyone on the squad – though their regular season ended in disappointment with a failure to qualify for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“He came at a time when we were struggling in the league and as a group, we got together before he came and we're like, ‘Leagues Cup is a perfect opportunity for us to start with a clean slate. Everyone starts on zero points and we can kind of rewrite the season,’” said Miller.

“Even before he got there, we committed as a team that we were going to give everything to win Leagues Cup. With the additions, obviously, it helped a lot, but overall it was a good ride.”

Life changes

Starring for Inter Miami had also brought him back to the same location as his longtime partner, Sheridan Street, a fellow Syracuse soccer player. While Miller quickly found silver linings, in a professional sense, to his shock move to the opposite end of the continent, becoming a Timber required a quick pivot on a very special occasion he’d been planning for months – years, really.

Popping the question to Sheridan.

“We met at Syracuse University, and we've just been going through the highs and the lows of my career,” explained Miller. “She's been there every step of the way, and finally we felt like we had a home here in Miami.”

He’d already been hard at work on an elaborate, achingly romantic proposal, and had to move up his schedule in light of his impending relocation to Cascadia.

“I was planning to do it a bit later in the year, like March, where we can get our families together after preseason,” he said. “But with the trade, I already had the ring. I was like, ‘There's no way I can leave for Portland without giving this to her. She deserves it.’ So I put it together very fast.”

Based on the images he posted on his social media channels, you’d hardly have known Miller had to cope with a sudden time crunch.

“It ended up being beautiful,” he said, “and we're both happy.”

New home

Miller intends to make sure much the same can be said of his relationship with his new club. As thrilling as it was, he says he’s eager to turn the page on that surreal Messi chapter, stardust and all, and dive into the work of winning over the Rose City faithful at the start of a new era for the Timbers.

With so many Eastern Conference addresses on his résumé, Miller has only made one career visit to Providence Park up to this point, a 1-1 draw with Orlando in the summer of 2019. He is hungry to perform in front of the Timbers Army again, this time as part of the home side.

“Overall, grateful for my time in Miami – short eight months – but I think Portland is a place for me to take my career to the next level: more responsibility, leadership role. I'm excited for it,” he said. “I have high expectations for the club and the city and the fan base, just as they have for their players. It’s a loyal fan base, great front office that just wants to win.

“They want to achieve excellence and they want to get back on track. The last two years haven't been the best for them. So right away they gave me instructions to come in and be a leader, and try to bring that fire back in the group and make Portland a feared team again like they always have been.”

The trade was also a profound expression of manager Phil Neville’s belief in Miller, and not for the first time. The Englishman worked with the Canadian during his final months in charge of Miami and is a longtime admirer, so much so that he’s made the defender a foundational piece in PTFC’s winter rebuild.

“Left-footed center backs are like gold dust. The first time I saw Kamal play, he played for Montréal against Inter Miami, and I never forget it, he performed so well,” Neville told the 'Talk Timbers' radio show on Jan. 17. “For a big guy, his composure on the ball, his passing abilities, reading of the game; I think he's a winner.

“In my second season in Miami I really wanted him, couldn't get him. Then in my third season, we managed to get Kamal [via a blockbuster trade in April 2023] and he's a brilliant, brilliant player. In terms of sort of his ability to build from the back, his composure on the ball, he gives confidence to everybody in the team. Playing on that left side, I think it is a specialist position. I think he’ll be able to bring the ball out of play, I think his ability to make others around him feel better, be composed, will bring brilliant qualities to this team.”

With his size, speed, organizing abilities and comfort with defending in space, Miller possesses traditional center-back qualities, while his analytics profile presents an elite skillset in areas like pass volume, passing completion, long-range distribution and progressive passes and carries. Neville has also underlined the value of his MLS experience and sees him as pivotal in his plans to use three- and four-man backline formations.

The coach clearly made an impression on the player, too.

“I have a great relationship with him,” Miller said of Neville. “We text often, call often, he checks up on me even [after] he left the team [Miami]. Just having a coach that's always going to be in your corner and as a player, you can play free knowing that if you make a mistake, the coach is going to have your back, and he sees the best in you and wants the best for you.

“That's a good feeling, as a footballer, to have that. I'm excited for the journey to reunite with Phil.”

CanMNT journey

Neville got another useful set of data points when he worked as an assistant on the Canadian national team during last year’s Gold Cup. It’s no coincidence the ex-Everton and Manchester United workhorse already brought Miller and goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau to Stumptown to join their fellow CanMNTer Zac McGraw in the Timbers rearguard, along with another Canuck in goalkeeper James Pantemis.

“I’d just left Inter Miami and when you come out of a job and you're disappointed and frustrated, I'm forever grateful for John Herdman to ask me into that camp and it gave me a lot of things,” Neville explained in his 'Talk Timbers' appearance. “I came in as a support coach, so without the responsibility of being a head coach, so I could really connect with the players, and that was my job, to connect with the players, be the defensive-type coach for the Canadian team at the time. Zac, Max, obviously Kamal were people that I worked with day in, day out.

“So the connection with the Canadian players was fantastic, a brilliant bunch of players, great team spirit. You can see why they've been so successful.”

Miller blossomed into a mainstay in Les Rouges’ stunning surge into the Concacaf elite during the 2022 cycle as Herdman & Co. finally, sensationally snapped a 36-year World Cup drought. He capped that rise by featuring in all three of Canada’s matches in Qatar.

“It was great. We honestly had the perfect balance between veteran players and young players, probably have three of the best, top 10 players in Concacaf on our team, maybe even four if you want to argue it,” Miller said of the “perfect story” that vintage CanMNT run produced. “It's just a really special group that Canada hasn't seen before.

“So many of us played together growing up or known each other's stories. So honestly, it just felt like a family, like a group of brothers rather than just teammates.”

Once they actually reached the shores of the Persian Gulf and crossed swords with Group F foes Belgium, Croatia and Morocco, the northerners proved themselves worthy of the stage, albeit unable to produce results. Going three and out was a heady, if ultimately sobering experience that changed Miller’s outlook on the game.

“Once you give these teams with experience and the quality that they have, once they sniff the blood, they're going to kill,” he said. “Everyone has that game where your legs get wobbly. We went up early against Croatia, weathered the storm perfectly until like the 20-something minute – and then something changed within their mentality.

“They just went into killer mode and then boom, boom, boom, boom. That's the next stage. You can't be naive. You can't give these teams nothing, because a little bit of space, players of that quality are going to find the top corner, are going to pick out the killer pass.”

2026 dreams

Those woes ran Les Rouges’ all-time men’s World Cup record to six losses in six across two tournaments. The harsh lessons of Qatar, he said, fuel Canada’s fire in the run-up to the 2026 North American World Cup, a historic opportunity for both of MLS’ home nations (they’ve auto-qualified).

“It's something that we look forward to a lot,” said Miller. “In Qatar, every single game, there was a point in the game where we felt like we were in control and we could win the game, and then to let all three games slip is a pretty bad feeling that we all still have to this day.

“I feel like the first win for Canada at the World Cup is coming in 2026. And hopefully our first group stage game is in Toronto or Vancouver, somewhere on home soil so we can have the fans to propel us to that win.”

With that monumental occasion now just two and a half years away, it’s logical for the 26-year-old to aim at another key role for his country when the time arrives. He’s resolute in taking nothing for granted, however, in the process revealing an innate awareness of the CanMNT’s long, often brutally painful history. Unlike co-hosts Mexico and the United States, Canada have never before played host to the planet’s favorite sporting event.

“It's going to be incredible,” he said. “I just want to be there in the stadium. Whether I'm on the pitch or not, I just want to be there to experience that moment.”

Even as their program and its parent federation weather a downturn in both form and finances, Miller believes the CanMNT should aspire to advance to the knockout phase in ‘26, at a “bare minimum,” and then build momentum and belief from there.

“Once you get out of the group, you see in tournaments, with Morocco, Iceland, Wales, there's Cinderella stories in every tournament. So why can't that be us? Especially on home soil,” he contended.

“Our golden players will be right in their prime or entering right in their prime. I joined the team in 2019 to be starting in the World Cup in 2022; there’s going to be more Kamal Millers, there's going to be more Alistair Johnsons, there's gonna be more [Ismaël] Konés. … 2026 is when we feel like the time is perfect.”