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SSFC Spotlight: Miles Robinson improves stock at CONCACAF Gold Cup

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The defender is showing the best parts of his game.

United States v Canada: Group B - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images

An experimental version of the United States Men’s National Team moved through Group B at the 2021 Gold Cup, surrendering one goal and advancing to the knockout rounds. The back line was partially led by Miles Robinson, who was able to disrupt the opponents with his controlled physicality. The 24-year-old Atlanta United defender is receiving his first real run under Gregg Berhalter, a chance to prove how well he fits in advance of World Cup qualifying. As the center back pool remains unsettled, this tournament will likely define his international standing for the remainder of the cycle.

Robinson was born in Arlington, Massachusetts and growing up would wear his soccer cleats to daycare, “refusing to take them off.” During his youth career, he played with FC Bolts Celtic and Arlington High School, exhibiting a “perfect pro mentality.” In 2014, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy named him to the Eastern Conference Starting XI. The teenager was also a local basketball star with Division I potential, described as “the fastest guy and the strongest guy on the court” despite not playing during the offseason. Opposing teams would intentionally foul to stop him from scoring, occasionally becoming frustrated by multiple dunks.

The defender then matriculated to Syracuse University. In his freshman year with the Orange, he helped the team to the semifinals of the College Cup and was included on the ACC All-Freshman and All-Tournament Teams. The following summer, there was a spell with FC Boston in the PDL, being named the league’s top defender and getting to play with one his favorite players, Shalrie Joseph. The next season, Robinson appeared on the All-ACC and All-American First Teams, while winning ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Following a standout college career, Major League Soccer added him to the Generation Adidas program for top unaffiliated prospects. Atlanta United selected the 19-year-old with the second pick in the 2017 SuperDraft. In his first professional season, the club sent him on loan to the Charleston Battery of the USL Championship. He made seven total appearances in 2017, including returning to Atlanta for a cup match.

For 2018, Robinson split time between the MLS squad and reserves. He played in 14 total matches with the first team, helping Atlanta win MLS Cup. Described as “calm on the ball” and an “excellent” defender, the club focused on improving his passing and developing the ability to play out of the back.

The next season was the breakthrough, playing every regular season match. Atlanta would enjoy another successful year, winning the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup. As a result, the club signed him to a contract extension through 2023. In addition to being named to the MLS Best XI, Robinson made his international debut, appearing in a 3-0 friendly loss to Mexico. At the time, national team manager Gregg Berhalter referred to his form as “impressive,” applauding his growth in leadership.

After a difficult 2020 involving multiple injuries, Robinson has returned to form this season. His tackling and pressure statistics are noticeably improved, with the defender also becoming more adept at blocking shots and intercepting passes. Unfortunately, Atlanta has once again been thrust into chaos with the recent firing of Gabriel Heinze, now searching for what will be the fourth manager of his career. The Gold Cup is perhaps providing a welcome respite and a chance to grow his profile for an eventual move, although there have yet to be any publicized transfer rumors.

At the international level, Robinson made several appearances with the U.S. U-20s and U-23s. Since making his senior debut in 2019, he’s earned six caps and scored his first goal last February in the 7-0 friendly victory over Trinidad and Tobago. Considered a fringe player with the potential for increased inclusion, the current competition has served as something of a showcase for the best of his abilities.

In the tournament’s second match, a 6-1 thrashing of Martinique, Robinson scored on a header. However, it was performance in the final Group B match against Canada that turned heads. With Walker Zimmerman leaving the match with an injury, the USMNT was forced into a “bend but don’t break” scenario. He responded by “completing 93% of his passes” and “not giving Cyle Larin or Junior Hoilett a lot of room to operate.” His best moment came in stoppage time, shutting down the electric Tajon Buchanan to preserve the shutout, displaying the mix of physicality, body control, and intelligence required from top defenders.

Robinson is a highly athletic player who will chase down opponents and knows how to position himself to stave off danger. Multiple teammates described him as “the best one-on-one defender” they’ve ever seen, a claim backed up by how rarely attackers have dribbled past him. As observed by Half Spaces, he destroys counter attacks by reading the opponent’s passes and “pressuring the outlet attacker.” At both the club and international levels, his best use appears to be in a three-man back line, emphasizing his more dynamic physical qualities and well-timed tackles.

“His off-the-ball intelligence provided him with a big advantage as he can anticipate the intent of the opposition’s ball carrier and make that one step earlier than the ball carrier,” wrote Daryl Gouilard for Total Football Analysis. “In most duels, the opposition’s attacker tended to find himself on the back foot when he attempted to bypass Robinson. Because of the fact that the American youngster already identified what that attacker would do and what he should do, it made the situation easier for Robinson to shield the ball away and recover possession for his team.”

His passing remains a work in progress, something that would have to improve to play a more significant role in Berhalter’s squad. Due to the obvious potential negative consequences, any team looking to build out of the defensive third cannot have a center back even mildly prone to bad giveaways. OneGoal noted the preference for playing long balls but a concerning habit of neither participating in possession when under pressure nor hitting progressive passes. While 24 years old may be a little too late to overhaul that aspect of his game, Robinson has routinely been praised for his drive and not being put off by a challenge.

This year’s Gold Cup is an important tournament for the prospects of many players in the talent pool. When Aaron Long ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in May, the already uncertain center back depth chart opened up further, with John Brooks appearing to be the only definite call-up. Despite being relatively inexperienced at the senior international level, Robinson has the opportunity to work his way into the national team picture and establish himself as an option for the 2022 World Cup roster. His performance in the group stage was a solid start to the campaign, a performance that can be built upon for the rest of the tournament and beyond.