Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HANOVER, N.J. – Roy Miller is playing some of the best soccer in his career right now and on the brink of participating in his first World Cup, but the road he traveled to get to this point in his career was a rocky one.
Miller is off to a flying start in 2014, playing impressively well with the New York Red Bulls en route to be included in the 23-man squad that Costa Rica is sending to Brazil later this month. It is the makings of a career year for the 29-year-old veteran, but has only come as a result of him enduring his fair share of bitter disappointment and severe hardships since turning pro as a teenager back in 2003.
The last such instance, and a highly-publicized one, came a little more than a year ago. The Red Bulls were on the road leading the San Jose Earthquakes late in New York’s second game of the 2013 season, but Miller made a string of errors that wound up giving the hosts a 2-1 victory. Miller then made the regrettable decision of telling media that he had encroached on purpose on a penalty kick that teammate Luis Robles had saved, and the retaken attempt wound up finding the back of the net to give San Jose a late winner.
Those gaffes and the reaction that followed from fans and media nearly signaled the end of Miller’s time as a member of the Red Bulls.
“The moment came where I don’t know what happened with me at the time, but I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave,” Miller told SBI. “I talked to (head coach Mike Petke), I told him I didn’t feel good due to what was going on because there have been few times where I felt that poorly. I’ve always had highs and lows, but this was a situation where I started thinking that I wanted to leave because I wasn’t feeling good about things.
“Maybe because of the amount of time I had here, I thought more about wanting a change of scenery, but I regrouped and I spoke to Mike, the captains and they supported me and helped me. They helped me stay in the team because I was, honestly, very sad about what was going on with my play at the time. That helped me keep here and I’m still here, happy now, and learning day to day.”
Indeed, Miller has bounced back in a big way since then. He returned to the fray after being given a brief break in 2013 and began to perform well before an injury in August sidelined him for the rest of the campaign. That positive momentum carried over into this season, as he proved to be one of the Red Bulls’ more consistent players before departing for World Cup duty with Costa Rica in May.
The string of blunders now seems like a distant memory, but is something that Miller calls one of the defining moments in his career and what admittedly has helped mold him into the more well-rounded player that he is today.
“You have highs and lows and, then at that time, things weren’t going well for me,” said Miller, who was also at the center of several playoff mishaps prior to 2013. “It was tough because you hear the comments being made and all that, but at the end of the day the most important thing is what your head coach and teammates tell you.
“I think that’s what really helped me to keep on looking forward. You have to fight. You can never lower your head, give up and stop fighting and that’s what’s helped me for this year to keep my head up and demonstrate that I have qualities. They continued to believe me and up until now I’ve showed it to them.”
While his positive response to last year’s situation may be surprising to some Red Bulls fans, Miller has had a knack for fighting through rough moments like that throughout his career.
One of the more notable ones came in 2006. Miller had broken into the Ticos’ national team a year earlier and then moved away from Cartagines – his first professional club – to Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt. Miller did well enough in his first season abroad to be one of the 24 players that was selected to Costa Rica’s pre-World Cup camp, and the dreams of representing his country in Germany that summer were close to becoming a reality.
Then, came heartbreaking news for the-then-21-year-old defender.
“I was on the list of 24 players and one was going to get left behind, and unfortunately it was me,” said Miller. “It was very painful. I was (playing) in Norway and it wasn’t just tough for me, but for my family as well. But those type of things happen and are experiences that help you to continue moving on and not giving up because what’s done is done. You always have to try to go day-by-day and think about what’s ahead. But it was difficult, it was the first World Cup that slipped away from me.”
Four years later, Miller again was on the cusp of playing in his first World Cup but again there was disappointment. Costa Rica had to face Uruguay in a two-legged play-off to see who would punch its ticket to South Africa, and the Ticos were edged out by a single goal.
Miller was again left with a sour taste in his mouth, but he refused to let it get the best of him. He returned to the Red Bulls, who he had signed with earlier in 2010, and focused on settling in.
Things did not go smoothly, as Miller began to develop a penchant for in-game lapses, particularly in the playoffs, that drew the ire and criticism of New York media and fans. After playing poorly in three straight postseasons, Miller became an easy target for scrutiny, but still he chose to keep his head down in an effort to fight through those rough moments.
“The one thing that I admire about Roy is that through all the hardships that he’s had here, the ups and downs, he’s handled it so professionally,” Petke told SBI. “He’s rolled with it, he hasn’t gotten too affected by it and there were times when fans, media were really all over him and I thought he’s dealt with it very professionally.”
That, while unbeknownst to most, is part of Miller’s DNA as a player. He is one of the more professional players in the Red Bulls’ locker room, and an unassuming veteran who is seen enjoying playful banter with his teammates constantly during training sessions.
Miller also puts in plenty of overtime on and off the field after practices – he is still taking periodic English classes at the Red Bulls Training Facility – and does so without looking for any recognition or praise.
“In four years now, I’ve seen him get angry twice,” said Petke, who added that Miller is the best left back in MLS or at the very least in the conversation for top three. “You know when he gets angry that something is seriously wrong and there’s, for lack of a better word, an injustice that he doesn’t believe in because he’s such a cool, calm and collected guy, a calming presence.
“If young guys come to me and ask me to pick out a couple of players they should emulate, he’s definitely on that list because of the way that he goes about it. He’s the guy doing extra running, extra work every day, and it’s not me, it’s not the coaching staff telling him to do it. He’s doing it on his own. He’s a guy that’s always there for his teammates, never pointing a finger, and he just has a happy-go-lucky attitude that’s infectious. Those are the aspects off the field that make him a great, true locker room leader.”
The Costa Rican’s team-first mentality is something that has gotten overlooked quite a bit during his Red Bulls’ tenure and so too has his improved one-on-one defending. Miller has always been dangerous going forward, but this season has seen him make big strides defensively and do away with the popular notion that he should not be an every-game starter.
His current level of play has been a breathe of fresh air for the Red Bulls and is a stark contrast to that of a season ago, when he was on the brink of calling it quits in New York after that penalty kick fiasco vs. San Jose.
“I remember the conversation being initially for me very difficult,” said Petke. “I was a new coach, he was a player that I played with, a player that I respect and I needed to choose my words carefully and we spoke about it. I’m not going to reveal exactly what was said, but it was definitely along the lines of my respect for him and I think that he has so much to offer that he doesn’t even realize yet in the future, and it’s a matter of if he could get past this thing, if he could rededicate himself mentally, I think he could be a huge part for us.”
Miller – the longest-tenured player on the current Red Bulls roster - has met Petke’s expectations up to this point in the season and admits that he feels comfortable in New York. That, however, is still not stopping him from ruling out a move elsewhere.
It would take the right situation and right offer for that to happen, but Miller is keeping all options on the table for himself at this point.
“We have to see what happens with the World Cup,” said Miller. “But if an option comes up that is good for the me, my family and the club, I’d like to take advantage of that opportunity if it comes because I’m in the final years of my career. If it’s a European option, then I wouldn’t be against it, but we’ll see what happens.”
For now, Miller is focused achieving the elusive goal of playing in a World Cup in little more than a week.
He has gone through a bumpy road to get to this point, but all of it will be worth it if he steps on the field in Brazil.
“I don’t know what I’ll feel that day but it will be something I’ve been waiting years for,” said Miller. “I just have to enjoy it, and think about all the sacrifice I’ve done and the things I’ve gone through, because it is an event that only happens once every four years and as a professional, you’re not always going to be around forever.”