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Clear improvements have Antonee Robinson looking like the USMNT answer at left back

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Few players have boosted their U.S. men’s national team stock more in recent months than Antonee Robinson, who has gone from fringe option to the front-runner to be the USMNT’s top choice at left back.

The Fulham defender is expected to return to the starting lineup for Gregg Berhalter for Wednesday’s Concacaf World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, and his form in recent qualifiers has made Robinson the USMNT’s best natural option at a position that has been difficult to fill for the better part of the past decade.

Robinson has come a long way from the struggles of his first year with in the USMNT setup, when he struggled to settle into Gregg Berhalter’s setup. A physically-gifted fullback known for his speed and power ever since he emerged from the Everton academy system, Robinson struggled with the USMNT’s possession-oriented system, which ultimately cost him a chance to make the team’s 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup roster.

“Going back to the start, especially when I started working with Gregg, It definitely felt like it was taken a while to get used to the system and the roles and responsibilities I had in this team compared to a club level, and the different tactics and things,” Robinson said. “But as games come, and you get used to playing with the players that I’ve been playing with for a while now, it gets a lot easier understanding what you need to do.”

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Robinson has evolved as a player, improving his passing and positioning, and those improvements have been clear to see with the USMNT, particularly in September’s qualifiers, when he was one of the team’s best players. His equalizing goal against Honduras helped spark a dramatic turnaround, and more recently Robinson impressed in the team’s 2-0 win against Jamaica.

The performance against Jamaica had to be a particularly satisfying one for Robinson. It was a game against Jamaica in June of 2019 when Robinson played poorly in a showing that cost him his chance to make the 2019 USMNT Gold Cup squad, a game that showed off all the flaws in Robinson’s game.

“The faults in my game, sort of technically and tactically, they were kind of pushed to the side because my physicality,” Robinson said. I could kind of just pick the ball up and run past people in the championship at that stage in my life, which made it easier, which made me look more comfortable.

“And then you come out to the international stage where everyone’s physical so you’re not you don’t just get away with not understanding the game properly,” Robinson said. “It was just sort of like developing into being more tactically aware and fitting into a system where you actually have a role, rather than at Wigan, I just felt like I was a big outlet who could get the ball and drive the team forward pretty much all the time, which didn’t work out for the (USMNT) early on.”

Robinson’s evolution as a player has been helped considerably by his transfer from Wigan to Fulham in 2020. Though the Cottagers were relegated after the 2020-2021 season, Robinson was one of the few bright spots under then-Fulham manager Scott Parker, who helped Robinson develop the technical and tactical aspects of his game. Those improvements have continued under current Fulham manager Marco Silva.

“I think that’s a great example of club and country working together,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said of Robinson’s improvements. “At Fulham, under Scott Parker I think (they) played really good soccer. Under (Marco Silva) they play really good soccer. So it’s a combination of the things that we’re asking of him are very similar to what his club is asking from him. So his learning has increased, and he’s able to handle all that.”

Robinson’s growth as a player has helped him draw the attention of high-profile clubs, including AC Milan, which was on the verge of a surprise transfer for Robinson in January of 2020 only to have the deal fall through when a heart ailment was discovered during his pre-transfer medical evaluation.

As disappointing as the failed move to AC Milan was, and as much as recent rumors linking him to interested from Manchester City might serve as motivation or a distraction, Robinson hasn’t spent much time thinking about those sort of links, choosing instead to focus on Fulham’s push for promotion to the Premier League, and the USMNT’s quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

“Being linked with clubs, especially after the AC Milan thing, it’s obviously nice to see things like that but I don’t really take too much out of it because I just want to get on with the job that I’m doing at the club I’m at,” Robinson said. “You never know what’s gonna happen in football. I don’t like to get my hopes up or anything so I just work hard where I’m at and the rest will take care of itself another time.”

Robinson’s current focus is on World Cup qualifying, and helping the USMNT qualify after missing out on the 2018 World Cup. As a rapidly-improving defender who now looks like the USMNT’s best option at left back, Robinson will have a major part to play, starting with Wednesday’s showdown with Costa Rica.

“Overall, it’s a big challenge,” Robinson said of World Cup qualifying. “It’s one that I’ve enjoyed being a part of, and I’m hoping that going forward we’re very successful because the prize at the end of It’s huge. Obviously, we’re all dreaming to play in a World Cup, so that’s what we’re all striving for.”

Comments

  1. i’d like to see him play good opponents to a shutout before declaring this over. honduras and jamaica are 7th and 8th and way too many people are writing the manual based on beating bad teams.

    i would also like to see vines get his shot, and us try playing some RBs and LBs, which I think is a nonsense line of argument if we’re looking for defense.

    however, he has emerged as sometimes competent which puts him ahead of the list for the time being. if dest never plays there again it’s too soon. but the question to me remains him handling the elite teams, and since the world cup is elite teams, i don’t like excuses like “but it was brazil.” the whole point to the exercise, beyond qualifying, is withstanding that level of competition. you have to keep pushing.

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  2. I remember when many USMNT fans who were writing this guy off a few years ago when he was 21. Now, everyone is saying he’s our best solution at left back. He’s still young but has vastly improved. This is to be expected from young players; they make mistakes. Look at the other USMNT fullbacks who made the same mistake over and over and still got capped into their 30s.

    Not going to name names, but all the OGs know what’s up.

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    • it’s a performance job and until this summer the performance wasn’t routinely there. revisionist history about the nervous wreck we saw last fall or the guy who got torched by brazil and disappeared for years before GB gave him a second chance.

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      • It’s not revisionist to say he got his 1st assist in his 1st match, running up the pitch, on the left side, and crossing into the box vs Bolivia and Weah headed the ball in for his 1st goal. Nice try!!

  3. Ives, great article. His role is very important as the opposite back from Dest. Teams seem to be focused on denying the ball to Dest’s side of the pitch. I was impressed with how Robinson was able to deal with most of the offense going through his side against Jamaica. I expect to see more of that tonight. Good thing he will be well rested.

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    • i don’t think they are scared of dest at all, sorry, no. i thought he played better than usual mid week last week, had one long track back where he swiped a ball. but it also was jamaica. still not convinced he’s a back at all. robinson in comparison initially impressed me as a defender but against weaker 2018 opponents. his task is “scaling up.” i think it’s easier to try to get someone improved at defense than to make someone be able to mark from scratch. dest just often has the wrong reactions usually drummed out of kids (or they get moved) by U16 eg flinching or jumping at a fake. robinson it’s a consistency thing.

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      • Sure everyone would like a better player at every position, but at the moment we haven’t seen any LB who has his combination of pace, decent crosses and facing the competition he has faced in the last few months, his tactical acumen seems good. (A player can’t really be faulted for how you imagine he would play against teams he did not face recently.) Right now, no other US player has demonstrated he is better as a left back, not Vines, not Bello, not Dest. Of course always looking for new shiny objects everyone seems to think Scally is the answer. He may be, but don’t worry, he will have a bad game at some point and the search for a new Left back will continue.

        You could say pretty much the same thing for most postions for the USMNT. Pulisic, Adams and Reyna have all had their problems staying healthy, so even for them there are questions (with no obvious answers save Aaronson).

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