What we said at the end of 2016:
What’s good about the defense: Everything. Watts and Sjoberg and Miller are all excellent and still young: we may not have even seen their best yet.
2017 Counting Stats: 30 GP, 30 GS, 0 G, 0 A, 2 shots, 2616 min, 5 YC
Key Stat: 7 Key Passes, 0.24 KP per 96 minutes, ranked 64th amongst MLS defenders in 2017.
Season Highlight: Miller recorded 5 tackles, 2 clearances, 2 interceptions, and a Key Pass on a great cross into the box (that Caleb Calvert put wide) against the Philadelphia Union on May 20, all while playing the less-familiar position of Left Back. You don’t remember any of that from the game. What you remember from that game was Kort Ford rolling on top of the ball in the box to draw a penalty, then Caleb Calvert getting sent off for re-entering the field of play without checking in with the fourth official, and the wall forgetting to leap on a free kick that resulted in a goal. The Rapids went from in-control and holding a 1-0 lead to losing 2-1 in just 23 minutes. Eric Miller was not responsible for any of that.
Season Lowlight: Miller looked altogether terrible in a match on the road against the Red Bulls on March 11. And that was before he put the ball into his own net; a goal that would eventually hand three points to NYRB. Eric was 12/32 on passing on the day, a putrid 37.5%; that’s one of the lowest pass percentages I can remember from a defender. The Rapids defense as a whole, including Miller, recorded a ton of defensive actions that game, which you might normally say is ‘good’; however the team spent the whole match on the back foot; conceding 13 shots while taking only 3, and were incapable of stringing together more than three passes at any time. Eric Miller was responsible for some of that, plus the goal that lost them the game.
When the Rapids traded a 2018 First Round Superdraft pick and General Allocation Money to Montreal for Eric Miller in 2016, the move indicated an aggressive investment in both a young player and an undervalued asset. Miller was taking over the right back position from the previous two holders of that important spot, James Riley and Marvell Wynne, two veteran MLS defenders. Miller, at 22 years old, hadn’t even established himself as a regular starter for Montreal. Miller was thought of very highly by the Rapids braintrust. Here’s what Interim GM Padraig Smith thought of him when I spoke to him in September 2016:
“Eric is another player that wasn’t getting a huge amount of game time, but in our ranks, was right up there. We actually had him as the second-ranked right back in the league last year.”
Miller recorded a career high in minutes played this year while playing at every position along the backline: he started 16 games at Right Back, 9 games at Left Back, and 5 as a Center Back. In a year when Mike da Fonte and Mekeil Williams were generally poor at left back, Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts were not up to the level of quality he had in 2016, and Kort Ford was learning on the job, Eric Miller was the most reliable defender on the back line. He was the overall team leader in Clearances, Blocks , and Interceptions, with 154.
Miller’s calling card as a defender is simple: you’re not going to turn him. He is fantastic at keeping the attacking Left wings and strikers that come at him in front of him. He is not a connoisseur of the incredibly dramatic emergency tackle, like Jared Watts. He just frustratingly and ceaselessly keeps his man in front of him at all times. And in a trying season like this, all of those qualities are appreciated.
But here’s the other thing: Miller isn’t an offensive fullback. As noted in his ‘Key Stat’ from above, Miller doesn’t pass particularly well. Eric had 9 crosses, 7 Key Passes, and 0 assists on the season. By comparison, Mekeil Williams on the other flank produced 15 crosses on the year in nearly half the number of minutes. That number of crosses and key passes is in the bottom quartile of MLS fullbacks. The only fullbacks with fewer Key Passes were Dave Romney and Raymond Gaddis. Zac MacMath had 0.22 KP/96. Think about how much harder it is to generate a pass that creates a shot on a 70 yard goal kick than it is to create one when you can, you know, run around wherever you want with the ball, and you get a sense of how ineffective Miller was in the attack.
You could say that Miller had to be the stay-at-home defender while Mekeil was off pressing the attack and whipping in crosses. You could also say that Miller’s reticence to get into attack made the Rapids predictable and easy to defend. Miller doesn’t overlap and Miller doesn’t create dangerous changes. Miller is the kind of fullback of an earlier era of soccer, when the fullbacks were defenders only, and not a critical part of the attack. It could be by design that the Rapids want him to be the castle guard and not one of the shock troops, but good professional athletes have a lot of tools in their belt, and ‘attacking weapon’ and ‘wing playmaker’ are absent from Miller’s repertoire.
These are tough criticisms of a guy who deserves to be generally lauded for his work for the Rapids. Miller is only 24 years old and is still on the upswing in his career. He’s bright and fleet-footed and intuitive. And he can play any position on the backline. In my estimation, he was the Rapids best left back on the season, which is incredible considering the team had him essentially as the 3rd string LB all year. Miller is a long-term keeper, and the kind of lynch-pin to the defense that you might one day move inside and have barking all the orders to the other guys, like Drew Moor used to do. That said, he is not a finished product. There are things he can work on. The hope is that he can go from bland but reliable steady-eddie defender to multi-faceted weapon that might get a sniff from the USMNT before Qatar in 2022.