The most important game of the year for goalkeeper Tyler Miller might have been the only one he didn’t play in.
After playing every minute of the Los Angeles Football Club’s first 22 games — or 21 more regular-season games then he had played in his first two MLS seasons combined — Miller was benched for a home match with Sporting Kansas City last month.
“I was taking it all in,” he remembered. “The opportunity to really sit down and just think about everything.”
What he thought about was the improbable path that has taken him from a small town in South New Jersey to a fourth-division team in Germany, on to two wasted seasons in Seattle before joining LAFC, where he has become a key part of what could prove to be the best expansion team in league history. So Miller said he had to avoid the temptation to pinch himself when he walked out for the next game.
“I was looking up through the little place where it says ‘Los Angeles,’” he said. “You can see the city and I was like, ‘This is so awesome. I’m playing in Los Angeles.’”
LAFC hasn’t lost in four games since that break, with Miller pitching back-to-back shutouts in his next two starts to give him eight clean sheets for the season. Only three MLS keepers have more. His 94 saves are tied for fifth best in the league.
He’ll get a chance to add to those totals Saturday when LAFC (13-7-7), coming off a two-week international break, meets the struggling New England Revolution at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC is three points out of first place in the Western Conference while New England (8-10-9), which has won only one of its last 10 games, is eighth in the East, three points out of a playoff spot with seven games left.
LAFC coach Bob Bradley said it was important that Miller understood his brief benching was a reward, not a reprimand.
“When you have a goalkeeper who’s never been a No. 1 for an entire season, there are moments when it’s useful that he just steps back,” Bradley said. “You hope that the player understands the decision and takes advantage of that opportunity.
“Tyler is a bright guy. As we’d expect from him, he used it in a really good way to move himself along.”
Miller’s LAFC experience has been a “pinch-me” moment from the start. John Thorrington, the team’s general manager, was a graduate student and sometimes volunteer coach at Northwestern who got to know Miller when he was an all-conference keeper there.
When Seattle left the little-known Miller unprotected in last December’s expansion draft, Thorrington grabbed him with the top pick.
Expected to back up Luis Lopez, the Honduran national team’s No. 1 keeper, Miller inherited the starting job when Lopez arrived for training camp with a tibial stress fracture.
“It’s so crazy how just knowing one person or being in the right place at the right time, that things can change like that,” Miller said. “I waited three years for this opportunity. It came and I was ready for it.”