Almost nine years ago, Steven Miller landed a summer internship as a student at Colgate University with the new MLS expansion team in his hometown.
On Saturday, the North Carolina FC veteran’s journey from college to the pros will come full circle when he gets a chance to play at the home stadium of that team, the Philadelphia Union, when he and his teammates take on Bethlehem Steel FC at Talen Energy Stadium.
“I said back then it was on my bucket list to play a professional game at what was then PPL Park,” Miller said in an interview earlier this week. “I’ll be able to check that off my bucket list on Saturday.”
During his summer internship in the team’s inaugural season, the Ivyland, Pa. native worked in game day operations and while it didn’t really fit with his studies in mathematics and sociology, Miller said he loved the experience of getting a behind-the-scenes view of the game.
“I was coming off a couple surgeries, I needed an internship and it was one of those things where I’d been around soccer so much,” he said. “I wanted to see soccer from the inside of things.”
After his summer with the Union, he returned back to Colgate and in his final season as a fifth-year senior he played alongside FC Cincinnati midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin in his one season in college before signing a homegrown contract with the Union. The Philly-area duo, who helped lead the Raiders to a Patriot League title, were also both former FC Delco standouts in high school. Miller also starred on the soccer team and graduated from Council Rock North High School.
Now 29, Miller is one of only three players on the North Carolina roster who was born in the 1980s. Though their squad doesn’t skew quite as young as the Steel, the team has an extensive youth system that feeds both the men’s USL Championship and North Carolina Courage women’s team in NWSL.
Like Irish veteran James Chambers is for the Steel, Miller is one of the elder statesmen leading the way for the younger faces in the squad.
“Steven provides something that is critical to our group and that’s senior leadership,” head coach Dave Sarachan said. “He leads by example. The guy is a tireless worker both on and off the field. He has those kinds of qualities that every team needs. He backs it up by his play, 90 minutes strong.”
Miller is also a coach off the field. He’s currently in his second year leading a group of girls now at the U12 level, who get the added bonus of being coached by a guy still plying his trade at the professional level.
Seeing the game now as a player and a coach, Miller has an even closer view of how rapidly the soccer landscape at every level has changed.
“My girls train three nights a week and have games on the weekend,” Miller said. “That’s more than I was training for FC Delco when I was 17.”
Love this! Especially the passion on my 07’s faces. That’s what it’s all about! https://t.co/l4RpuCfY1X— Steven Miller (@weavin_steven) February 7, 2019
The former Ocean City Nor’easters player (he played there when the team was still went by the Barons in 2008-2009) was originally a third round draft pick of the Montreal Impact out of college in 2012 but didn’t get a contract offer and ended up starting his professional career in Denmark, where he played two seasons with Jammerbugt FC.
He returned to the states for his first stint in North Carolina with the Wilmington Hammerheads in 2014 and spent most of the next season with the Tulsa Roughnecks. He first arrived in Raleigh on loan with the then NASL Carolina RailHawks before making the move permanent and then stayed on with the club when they re-branded and joined the USL last season.
“I think his ability to sustain it all these years is a credit to his work ethic,” Sarachan said. “He not only has a great work ethic, but he’s competitive. When you have that combination, you can last a fairly long time.”
Miller credits his approach to his time growing up in Bucks County — and the talented players he’s trained with in the off-season back home — with helping him sustain his career well into his late 20s. His adaptability from playing forward in college and playing as a winger and right back at the pro level has also been key to him getting consistent minutes.
“I’ve always accepted that whatever I can do to impact the game and be on the field I’m going to do,” he said. “I think part of it is my work rate has helped me get to where I am and I think that comes from growing up in the Philly area, having that kind of blue collar mentality. That’s definitely something I’ve noticed, especially when I come back to Philly in the off-season and play pickup and see that competitiveness you don’t see in other places.”
Like the Steel, Miller and North Carolina FC are coming off a strong performance in week one with a 4-1 win over the two-time defending champs Louisville City. This early in the season though with a lot of new faces and a new head coach in the former USMNT interim and Chicago Fire boss, Miller said they are still searching for their identity.
“We have a lot of question marks, we don’t know who we are yet, but part of our identity is we’re going to be overly focused,” Miller said. “Bethlehem is going to pose some challenges but I think if we have that same focus and that same mindset we had against Louisville we’ll be okay.”
Saturday’s game will be the first for the Steel at Talen Energy Stadium. The team moved games to Chester for the 2019 season while they continue a search for a venue in the Lehigh Valley that meets USL Championship stadium standards (they were granted waivers for Goodman Stadium not having lights in the first three seasons). The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on ESPN+.