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Vancouver Whitecaps' striker Kenny Miller, of Scotland, poses for a photograph after practice in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday August 22, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Vancouver Whitecaps' striker Kenny Miller, of Scotland, poses for a photograph after practice in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday August 22, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

David Ebner

Kenny Miller: One red-hot Whitecap Add to ...

Kenny Miller’s father was a potent striker on the soccer pitch when John Miller grew up near Edinburgh, but John never quite cracked the professional game – and instead indulged his passion for the sport in the amateur ranks.

As a boy, Miller would trot alongside his dad, to Saturday matches and to training through the week, immersed in and obsessed by the game from near the time he could walk. He’d knock around a ball with the sons of his dad’s teammates while the men vied on the pitch – and back around his home, from morning till night, in the street, in backyards, it was one thing only: soccer.

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“Football was all we had, from a young age,” said Miller in an interview this week before a practice in Vancouver, where he currently stars for the Whitecaps. “It’s clear to me that’s what I wanted to do. Obviously, you don’t know at 5, six years old what you want to pursue as a career, but I knew it’s all I wanted to do.”

The Whitecaps, underpinned by Miller, are in the midst of their third season in Major League Soccer and again are fighting to make the playoffs in the tight Western Conference, facing a key match Saturday against the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Vancouver plays host, and in the confines of B.C. Place the team has registered the most home goals of any club in the league, a radical reversal for the barely-able-to-score team of the previous two seasons.

Miller has been the keystone of this flurry – but when he arrived a year ago as a ballyhooed big-time signing it could not have gone worse. Last season marked a rough arrival for a man in whom Vancouver had made its biggest-ever investment, paying him $1.2-million (all currency U.S.), which at the time made him one of just a dozen million-plus players in the league.

The Vancouver Whitecaps have always aimed to become a marquee club. Majority-owned by local software magnate Greg Kerfoot, the team’s roster of investors includes basketball star Steve Nash and Jeff Mallett, the former Yahoo Inc. executive and current part-owner of the San Francisco Giants. Unlike some other teams, the Whitecaps invested from the start in designated players – whose salaries over a certain mark do not count against the tight salary cap of less than $3-million.

Designated-player investments are something of a lottery. Some succeed. Almost as many others underperform, or fail. Miller was the reverse, a failed investment turned, so far, into success.

His promise, as a boy, was clear by age 12. Miller quit school at 16 and made his professional debut at 17 with Hibernian FC in the Scottish top flight. Through his 16-year career, Miller has played in the English Premier League on several occasions and twice crossed the chasm between the two Old Firm clubs in Glasgow, Rangers FC and Celtic FC, a divide riven by history and religion, one of the fiercest in sports. He first played for Rangers, Celtic some years later, and then Rangers – the only such double-jump in the past century. It was with Rangers in the late 2000s where Miller played his best soccer, scoring 49 times in 81 matches as the team won the league several times. He was also a long-time striker for the national team, eventually captaining the Scottish side.

With this pedigree, Miller arrived in Vancouver last summer amid fanfare with local soccer diehards, coming to the Whitecaps in their sophomore MLS season when the team was surging. Everything began to collapse. Miller played poorly, lacking fitness, and scored only twice in 13 games – a ragged North American debut similar to many European stars, even the likes of Thierry Henry, who show up and are jarred. Vancouver scraped into the playoffs. Miller didn’t even start the game, coming off the bench for 31 minutes, registering two shots – both wide of the mark – in a one-and-out loss to Los Angeles.

It was an ignominious showing for the 5-foot-10, 150-pound striker, now 33, whose reputation through the years was built as much on his ability to score as his tremendous hustle. Miller retreated back to Scotland and spent his off-season training with Rangers.

“Pretty much never took a holiday to make sure I was as fit as I could be and ready to attack the season,” said Miller, standing in the sun outside the Whitecaps facility at University of British Columbia.

“What I’ve always done – which I like to think people have recognized and appreciated – I’ve given everything I’ve got and I’ve always worked my socks off.”

This year began well, a goal in the second game, before he was sidelined by a wonky hamstring. Vancouver struggled in his absence. On his return on the road against New York at the start of June, Vancouver reignited, securing a rare road victory with a game-winning goal from Miller, and the team has rolled ever since. Miller has seven goals in 15 games and four of those have been game-winners, tying him for second-best in the league.

Beyond his own numbers, his presence and smarts and pace open the field for his teammates, starting with striker Camilo Sanvezzo, whose 14 goals are tied for the league lead.

“Kenny’s the fulcrum to everything,” said Whitecaps assistant coach Carl Robinson, a Welshman who played with Miller a dozen years ago in England and with whom he remains close friends. “His movement is the key to everything we do.”

Robinson watched his friend, last season, an uncharacteristic step-behind, and this year, revived. “He lives and dies by football,” said Robinson. “Kenny hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still got the desire, hunger, belief.” Paul Ritchie, another Whitecaps assistant coach, also played with and against Miller in Scotland, in their early 20s. Of the passion on the pitch, Ritchie smiles, “It’s a Scottish thing.”

The immediate future for Miller – who after retirement aims to become a coach – are Vancouver’s 10 remaining matches over the next two months. He is signed with Vancouver though mid-2014 but both sides have said come season’s end they will discuss their mutual future, with the team weighing cost and need. The Whitecaps have several young promising, and much cheaper, strikers. Miller may – turning 34 in December – return to the United Kingdom, where there was interest already this year.

And then there’s the question of international duty. Miller scored a terrific goal for Scotland against England earlier this month at London’s Wembley Stadium in the two countries’ first friendly since 1989. Miller’s strike was the culmination – but maybe not the end – of a tremendous career for his country, his 18th goal in 69 matches for Scotland since 2001.

Scotland has three more games in World Cup qualifying, meaningless matches since the country has been eliminated, but should Miller go to play, he would miss one Whitecaps game and in any case the travel and extra matches would hinder him in his full-time job. With the West so tight, every game is crucial for Vancouver.

His coaches want him to stay but understand the tug. “He’s a patriotic lad,” said assistant coach Paul Ritchie, acknowledging that if Miller does go, “it hampers us, doesn’t do us any favours.”

Miller said a decision is soon – but remained coy. “I’ve got a few ideas,” he said.

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