RYAN BACIC - Tuesday, November 27, 2012
With Sweden's recent change in promotion and relegation format came an extra opportunity for Halmstads BK and Illinois native Ryan Miller.
Prior to this past season, Allsvenskan and Superettan exchanged their two bottom and top teams, respectively, but - in mirroring the German system - a third spot in 2012 was newly put up for grabs via a two-legged playoff. Miller and his club took full advantage.
Having finished third in Superettan in 2012, Halmstad faced off against GIV Sundsvall in a high-stakes and high-scoring home-and-home series in mid-November, and a 6-4 aggregate win restored them to their usual home in the first tier.
And despite being one of the two teams relegated the season before, a grateful Miller told YA that promotion was no sure thing.
"If you were to ask me, I don't think we were favored," he said. "I think the Superettan league is full of a lot of teams that are very capable of winning the league, so it was nice to be able to do it."
Superettan play was nothing new for Miller - who started his stint in Sweden with second-division side Ljungskile in 2010 - but it certainly was for Halmstad, which had spent 19 straight years in the country's top flight prior to relegation. As it turned out, their stay wouldn't last long.
Miller played a big part in that short layover by contributing eight assists from right back, an impressive mark that tied him for first on his team as well as for third in the league as a whole.
Much of that success can be attributed to a newfound positional stability, as the Notre Dame product abandoned occasional platoons in the center of defense in favor of a permanent shift to the more familiar flank.
"This year, I came in and was able to play right back the entire season - from preseason to the final game - and I felt very comfortable," Miller said. "Defensively I was solid all year. I had my mistakes here and there, of course, but overall I thought I was pretty consistent, so [on a personal level] I felt good about it."
Now three years removed from an uneventful two-season stint with D.C. United, Miller appears to have finally found his footing.
Drafted by the Columbus Crew in the third round out of college, Miller made only a handful of reserve team appearances before United claimed him off of waivers in September of 2008. A subsequent move to Ljungskile opened the door for him once again, though, and a successful showing in his first season caught the attention of the Halmstad brass, who signed Miller in January of 2010.
Limited a bit by injury in the early going, Miller made 36 appearances across all competitions in 2010 and 24 in 2011 before featuring in 44 contests this year. After not having even made the bench stateside, then, he's firmly cemented his place in the starting XI abroad.
Nonetheless, it was not so much strong individual performances like Miller's as it was team play that underscored the past season for Halmstad.
"There were times [in previous years] when guys did brilliant things and we were able to score goals, but at the end of the day, we had a couple bad years in Allsvenskan - and in one of them we were relegated," Miller said. "This year we had a totally different team, an entirely new team build, and the philosophy is totally different as well. And it feels good."
Halmstad - with whom former Sweden international Freddie Ljungberg got his start in 1994 - will now be tasked with staying up in the Allsvenskan, a challenge complicated by the financial obstacles that always accompany freshly promoted clubs.
Manager Jens Gustafsson took the reins in 2011 and led the club to relegation, but Miller noted that the mentality Gustafsson came in and instilled has become one of Halmstad's major assets. With cohesion at the back and heady play across the field, Miller believes that they will have a good chance at keeping their spot.
"We're very organized defensively, we're very strong, so - depending on what kind of team the club can bring back - it could be a good year."