After stepping away from the game after college, new San Diego Loyal SC Head Coach Nate Miller re-embraced the game and after a decade of personal progression has helped bring success to his current club. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC
Nate Miller’s introduction to soccer was about as informal as it gets for a kid.
Born in Jerusalem, Israel, his family was regularly on the move during his youth. There was a stint in Kenya, where his family moved when he was seven. They arrived in Mechanicsburg, Pa. as Miller became a teenager.
Wherever they were, there was always the pick-up soccer game in the street with your friends to rely on.
“I actually grew up with no coaching at all because all street football is all very unorganized football, a very diverse group of kids on the street playing football,” San Diego Loyal SC’s new Head Coach said this offseason. “I try to recreate that now with my young kids – it’s much more difficult – but that’s just the way it was. It’s just the first thing, I’ve always been playing.”
It’s the sort of introduction to soccer that engenders a lifelong love of the game, with the joy of simply playing for the sake of playing at its core.
And yet, there was a time – right after he had completed his college soccer career at Taylor College – when Miller decided to put the game to one side, maybe for good.
“I remember, I was finishing my college career in like 2007 or ’08, and I just remember not thinking things made sense,” said Miller. “I was pretty disenfranchised, I was burnt out from football, and I actually went to work in wealth management in Chicago.”
Life was good, and given the position he held in financial services, well paid.
After 18 months away, though, Miller felt the game calling him back, this time to coach.
“I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to coach when I was done [playing], but I would say soon after I realized that it was something I would rather want to do, to put my life into,” he said.
San Diego Loyal SC Head Coach Nate Miller progressed through the college and pre-professional ranks before moving into the professional ranks in 2019 at Lansing Ignite FC in USL League One.
Just over a decade later – and a path that began at his alma mater before head coaching positions in the college, pre-professional, and professional levels – Miller is right where he wants to be at SD Loyal.
An assistant coach to Landon Donovan for the club’s first three seasons, Miller’s tenure got off to a successful start this past Saturday night. SD Loyal claimed victory in its season opener against Detroit City FC at Torero Stadium as Jackson Simba’s goal lifted a sellout crowd to its feet and proved the game-winner.
After finishing in second place in the Western Conference a season ago, but falling at the first hurdle in the playoffs, San Diego looks to have the squad that can carry it further this year. But for Miller, while short-term results are important, the underlying ideas of what a club represents and how to express that on the field are most important.
Through that, he believes, SD Loyal can create the sustained consistency it takes to challenge year-in and year-out.
“As a starting point, I have my personal identity and that’s the catalyst that creates the identity that grows into a team culture,” said Miller. “Then we’ll talk about the football identity, but then beyond that, I try to connect that to create a club identity and something that connects with the supporters.
“How I like to describe it is what we’re trying to do is be dominant. We’re trying to control the game with the ball. We want to dominate transitions, because transitions in the modern game are everything. And without the ball, when we don’t have it, we want to come after you and get the ball from you.”
It’s a philosophy that’s proven successful. After building a strong program at NAIA program Spring Arbor University over five seasons while also working at pre-professional club Lansing United, Miller got the chance to step into the professional ranks in USL League One with Lansing Ignite FC as the league and club launched in 2019. Ignite FC earned a second-place finish in the regular season, and placed four players – including current SD Loyal notables Tumi Moshobane and Nick Moon – on the All-League Team.
When it became clear that Ignite FC wouldn’t see a second season, though, Miller sought a new path. Having a few mutual connections in the soccer world, he drove down from Michigan to Louisville, Ky. for the 2019 USL Championship Final, where Landon Donovan was on hand ahead of SD Loyal’s inaugural campaign the following spring. As the two got to know each other – including a day-long meeting – it became clear how the two could mesh on SD Loyal’s coaching staff.
Joining San Diego Loyal SC and former Head Coach Landon Donovan prior to its inaugural season in 2020, Miller has helped the club achieve year-on-year gains in the USL Championship's Western Conference. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
“It was a unique job, a unique position to come in and be the number two and push the process, so we both took our time,” said Miller. “It turned out to be a great fit. [Landon has] been incredible to work for. I never pictured at the time being a No. 2 – it was never part of what I was after – but after getting to know the person, that’s why I came to San Diego.”
And while it might have seemed from the outside that Miller was the tactical brain behind SD Loyal’s on-field structure as Donovan served as a figurehead, Miller is blunt in refuting that concept.
“He’s pragmatic, right?” said Miller. “He knows what helps footballers become good footballers, and what has been a huge quality is that he doesn't make mistakes in the locker room. Like, never. I think as a coach one of the easiest things to do is to screw up and make mistakes with the group. He has a vast array of experience with that, and he’s smart about that.
“He's a very good communicator, he keeps things simple for the players, and he’s great communicating to the staff. I never felt like I was stepping on his toes because he gave me a responsibility and when someone communicates with clarity like that, and you know where you stand, all companies thrive.”
Now, Miller is aiming to build on the foundation he and Donovan laid, while incorporating additional ideas and tweaks of his own to continue the club’s momentum. A recent graduate of the USSF Pro License coaching course – where he was a classmate of recently-appointed Rhode Island FC Head Coach Khano Smith – the 37-year-old believes the continuity San Diego has in its squad from last year to this provides a major advantage in the club’s pursuit of its first silverware.
While the competition across the league will be strong, you can make no mistake that silverware is the standard Miller and SD Loyal have set for themselves.
“I think when you talk about a USL Championship club in a city like San Diego, us just competing, being near the top is not good enough,” said Miller. “I don’t want to leave until we’ve won a trophy, and something I’m passionate about is building a team that's capable of winning. We’re right there. I think this team will be capable.
“Whether you do it or not, there are things within your control, and things that are not, especially with playoffs. But I think winning the West in the regular season, that is what we believe can be possible. We can see what can happen from there.”