The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was a Chicago Fire intern. Now he will face his old team as United’s goalkeeper.

Tyler Miller has started every match for D.C. United since signing as a free agent this past winter. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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D.C. United goalkeeper Tyler Miller is back in Chicago this weekend — the city where, a decade ago while attending Northwestern, he played for the Fire’s under-23 amateur squad and trained with the first team alongside one of MLS’s best, Sean Johnson.

It set him on a professional path to Germany, then four MLS clubs and the U.S. national team one summer.

But Miller’s college-age soccer experiences also took him high above the field — to the press box.

Some future pro athletes start out as ballboys or batboys. Miller was an intern in the Fire’s communications department.

Nine years removed from compiling game notes and stats, Miller on Saturday is expected to start at Soldier Field against the organization that mentored him on and off the field. It’s the first time he has faced the Fire in greater Chicago since 2018, when he was with Los Angeles FC and the Fire played home games at SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview — the site of his former office.

“I had friends interning at JP Morgan and places I had no interest in,” the Woodbury, N.J., native said this week. “I was like, ‘What can I do that applies to what I want to do?’ ”

If Miller couldn’t apply his athletic skills to a playing career, he wanted to use his passion for sports broadcasting. He majored in communications and minored in English, with a goal of anchoring “SportsCenter” someday.

He already had the connection to the Fire thanks to his 2013 season with the U-23s and training sessions with the MLS squad. He was accustomed to the 28-mile drive from the Evanston lakeside campus north of Chicago to Bridgeview, a suburb near Midway Airport.

Aron Hyde, the Fire’s goalkeepers coach at the time, spoke on Miller’s behalf to Eunice Kim in the communications department. Miller got the job, which required him to work in the Bridgeview office four days a week, plus home matches, throughout the spring of his junior year.

“It gave me the opportunity to see the other side of things and gave me an appreciation for the media and what their jobs are and how important of a role they play,” he said. “I have much more of a broader understanding and respect as well for what they do in this sport.”

When he was invited to participate in first-team sessions, which did not affect NCAA eligibility, Miller would train in the morning before reporting to the office. On gamedays, he would relay stats from the press box to field level and assist media operations.

Behind-the-scenes work, though, was no match for field work.

“It gave me a little glimpse of what my life would be like if I didn’t play soccer, but I think it just motivated me to want to play soccer even more,” he said. “It was just too slow. It wasn’t for me. I don’t think the office life is something I’ll ever want to do. Even after I retire, I think I’ll find some sort of job that allows me to be outside or more active on my feet.”

Kim, now the Columbus Crew’s senior manager of communications, recalled receiving a call from former FC Dallas defender Justin Moore, whose two MLS appearances included a 2006 game against the Fire. He was seeking game footage for his personal collection.

“So Tyler dug through the archives of what I’m sure were countless boxes — very likely not organized in any way — that were stored somewhere in the bowels of SeatGeek Stadium and found this DVD,” Kim said. “And later that same day, he saved a penalty kick” for the Fire’s U-23s in a fourth-division match.

“The biggest thing that impressed me,” Kim added, “was how Tyler managed his time and was able to juggle everything he had on his plate.”

What Miller wanted most, however, was to play professionally. His first unofficial workouts with a pro team came with D.C. United after his freshman year. The following summer, he played as an amateur for the Ocean City (N.J.) Nor’easters, a fourth-division side. Then came two years of opportunity with the Fire’s U-23 squad and invitations to first-team training.

“I wanted to know: Where do I stand as a 19-year-old versus these guys who are professional? I felt like I fit in,” he said.

After Miller recorded a program-record 34 career shutouts for Northwestern, the Seattle Sounders drafted him in the second round of the 2015 MLS draft. He opted for Germany, but promises of joining Kaiserslautern’s second team fizzled and he landed with a bankrupt fourth-division side, Zweibrücken, making $270 a month.

Miller soon returned stateside and started once during Seattle’s run to the MLS Cup trophy in 2016. LAFC claimed him in the 2017 expansion draft, and over two seasons, he started 61 games and earned a place on the 2019 U.S. Gold Cup roster.

Minnesota traded for him in 2020, and after an injury limited him to five matches, Miller was the full-time starter in 2021. The next season, though, he lost the job to Dayne St. Clair. Having cut ties with veteran Bill Hamid last fall, D.C. signed Miller and Alex Bono (Toronto) as free agents. Miller won the starting gig.

Though Miller has yet to record a shutout through five matches, United Coach Wayne Rooney said he thought he has “done really well.”

“We’ve conceded a lot of goals, and a lot of them there is nothing really he can do,” he continued. “It’s more from individual mistakes from the outfield players.”

That said, Rooney later poked his head into the room where Miller was doing an interview and said with a smile, “Ask him how many goals he has conceded this season.”

“We’re not happy with the amount of goals we’ve been giving up,” Miller said. “We’re averaging two goals a game against, which is just not good enough. It’s not going to be sustainable throughout 34 matches.”

Rooney has instructed Miller to play a risky style that requires forays outside the penalty area to disrupt brewing danger and play the ball with his feet, as if he is a fifth defender.

Miller has embraced the proactive approach.

“That’s one of the most exciting parts of my game, the ability to anticipate how the other team is playing, read the through balls and come out and cut off chances before they even develop,” he said

In a 2-1 defeat to New England last weekend, Miller cut one situation close and almost got caught.

“He got away with it,” Rooney said.

“I knew exactly what I was doing,” Miller said, smiling. “It’s an instant decision. The biggest thing is being aggressive, and when you make a decision, you stick with it.”

A goalkeeper’s career often runs deep into his 30s. When his days are up, Miller said he would not mind breaking into the broadcasting business.

“I know it’s a popular route and a competitive route,” he said, “but if the opportunity came, I would love it.”