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.”
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.
“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.”