In search of improved defensive shape and success, Minnesota United in many ways didn’t need to look much further these past two games than its own backyard.
United coach Adrian Heath remade his back line by shuttling two of Woodbury’s own — Brent Kallman and Eric Miller — into the starting lineup alongside newly acquired veterans Ike Opara and Romain Metanire. He also did so in place of team captain Francisco Calvo and center-back mainstay Michael Boxall.
Miller, who hadn’t played in the Loons’ first seven games, was on the field for all 90 minutes in a scoreless draw with L.A. Galaxy and again on Sunday in a 1-0 victory over D.C. United. Miller, something of a throwback defender in the modern MLS game, joined the lineup after United had allowed seven goals in two previous games.
“I was talking to people in England about the way the game is changing now, about the lack of true defenders,” Heath said. “There’s not people who actually go ‘I’m a defender first and I’ll join in second; that might be a bonus.’ But Eric has that mentality. That’s the way he was brought up. That’s the way he is. Certain games that might not be what we’re looking for.”
Heath sought Miller’s presence after a 3-3 draw with New York City FC in Allianz Field’s debut two weeks ago and after United blew a 3-2 lead at Toronto by allowing two quick, late goals.
Calvo’s red card late in the Toronto game, which got him suspended for the Galaxy game, created a spot at left back for Miller. Boxall’s error on the final goal against Toronto convinced Heath to change his lineup further by starting Kallman over Boxall at a center-back position.
In the Galaxy game, Miller and that back line held down star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had scored seven goals in his first five games this season. The Loons defense did the same to D.C. star Wayne Rooney and a talented group of midfielders who support him.
A witness to Allianz Field’s April 13 opening, Miller has been on the field the past two games to hear the home crowd roar just down Interstate Hwy. 94 from where he was named Mr. Soccer and Gatorade Player of the Year at Woodbury High School in 2011.
On Sunday, he heard the “Wonderwall” of fans behind one goal sing the song that inspired its name after the Loons’ first home victory.
Friends and family made that drive down the freeway to watch both those games.
“It’s a little harder to get tickets this year than last year,” said Miller, who played for Creighton before Montreal made him the fifth overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. He later played for Colorado, where he was the team’s 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, before he was traded back home early last season.
“If I wasn’t on the team, I’d be in the stands watching,’’ Miller said. “To have the opportunity to represent Minnesota with Brent and Ethan [Finlay], it’s really special.”
Heath kept Miller at left back Sunday even with Calvo ready to return from his one-game suspension. Heath said it would have been “hypocritical” not to reward Miller and that back line for its shutout against the Galaxy.
Calvo was neither a starter nor a sub on Sunday because Heath didn’t want Calvo’s disappointment to affect the starters and substitutes chosen for that game.
Heath has said the team’s depth gives him more options.
“We’ll all just keep pushing each other,” said Loons midfielder Miguel Ibarra, who is still working himself back toward a starting spot after a hamstring injury knocked him out. “The best ones are going to play. The one that is waiting will keep pushing the one ahead of him.”
Heath has a bit more time this week to make such decisions; United plays Seattle on Saturday at Allianz Field. But if one shutout begets another …
“I felt I needed to give them the confidence to go again,” Heath said about keeping his back line intact for Sunday’s game. “Eric has a good defensive mentality. That’s what he has always had.”