The race to fill the starting centerback role next to John Brooks on the U.S. men’s national team is wide open, and if it feels like Miles Robinson has been a bit late to the party, it is because circumstances have held him back like few other top centerback prospects in the player pool.
The Atlanta United defender heads into the Concacaf Gold Cup slated to start for Gregg Berhalter’s squad, bringing an end to a prolonged wait to see Robinson get an extended chance to impress in the national team setup.
“With Miles it’s pretty clear, he’s just brought in to be a starter on this team,” Berhalter said when the Gold Cup roster was announced. “We think that he needs these games, he needs the international experience to continue his development. We think he’s been doing a good job with Atlanta over these last years, but needs the level of these games to continue his growth.”
Of all the players poised to gain the most from a good Gold Cup showing, few stand more to gain than Robinson, who will be attempting to bolster his standing in a crowded field of contenders aiming to fill the starting centerback position left open by Aaron Long’s season-ended Achilles injury.
Mark McKenzie was the first to stake a claim, showing well in the USMNT’s recent run through Concacaf Nations League, while other younger prospects such as Chris Richards, Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers are also in the picture.
Robinson may have grabbed the starting role next to Brooks much sooner if not for a series of unfortunate events that have cost him valuable national team opportunities. The drama began in October of 2019, when Robinson suffered an injury in national team camp that cost him a chance to potentially start in an important Concacaf Nations League match against Canada and kept him out of Atlanta United’s push to defend its MLS Cup title in the 2019 playoffs.
Robinson’s injury created a rift between the USMNT and Atlanta United, which proceeded to turn down a call-up request for Robinson in January of 2020. A year later, Robinson had a call-up request for Olympic qualifying also rejected by Atlanta United, costing him a chance to lead the U.S. Under-23 team defense in the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament.
While the conflict between the USMNT and Atlanta United cost him opportunities, Robinson did his part to keep himself in the picture, solidifying his standing as one of the best defenders in MLS. His combination of size, athleticism and improving passing skills led Berhalter to bring him in back in 2019, and two years later the 24-year-old is a more polished defender and better ball distributor.
“My first camps with Gregg were definitely learning experiences, getting used to the competition, the level of play, things like this, but also getting to know how he wants to play,” Robinson said. “How we can utilize our six when we’re playing and try to create those line-breaking passes and that’s something I’ve definitely worked on, and tried to improve on.”
Robinson’s breakout 2019 season saw him emerge as one of the most promising central defender prospects in the USMNT pool, but 2020 saw him take a step back in the midst of Atlanta United’s disappointing season. In 2021, Robinson has shown clear improvements in his passing, particularly his progressive passing, while also improving his short passing.
Robinson made the most of his most recent USMNT opportunity, starting and scoring a goal in a 7-0 romp over Panama back in January. His showing in the January camp only served to reinforce his standing as a top centerback prospect, and positioned him to be a starter and leader in Olympic qualifying before Atlanta United blocked his call-up.
Now set to partner with Walker Zimmerman in central defense at the Gold Cup, Robinson has the versatility and experience of playing in a three-centerback system, which should also allow Berhalter to experiment with that look, which is a system the USMNT has used with more frequency in 2021.
A strong showing at the Gold Cup could position Robinson to be a leading candidate to start in central defense when World Cup qualifying begins in September, and while he has already endured his share of obstacles to get to that point, Robinson has done his part to stay in the USMNT picture and this month will be his chance to show he is ready for a regular starting role.