With the Nations League trophy already in hand, the U.S. national team will now turn its attention to the Gold Cup for its second major Concacaf tournament of the summer and the last time the team will play together before World Cup qualifying. The Gold Cup roster will consist of a mostly different team and be without many of the USA's UEFA Champions League players such as Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest.
Last week U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter named his provisional roster for the Gold Cup, and most of the players will be domestically based and looking to prove themselves in an increasingly competitive U.S. player pool. But the good news for these players is that there is plenty of opportunity to make a statement. With the upcoming World Cup qualifying format including mostly three-game windows, it will require bigger rosters and more squad rotation. Combined with suspensions and injuries, there are still spots available for players for the games ahead.
Miles Robinson has emerged as a player to watch. In May, when outlining his plans for the summer, Berhalter indicated that Robinson was a player he planned to evaluate for the Gold Cup. The central defender from Arlington, Massachusetts, has been a staple with Atlanta United since he made his debut in 2018 during the Five Stripes' second MLS season under Tata Martino when they won MLS Cup.
Robinson, 24, continued to be a starter under Frank de Boer in 2019 when he was named to the league’s Best XI that season, interim coach Stephen Glass in 2020, and now Gabriel Heinze in 2021. In total, Robinson has now made 72 appearances for Atlanta in his career and is currently a key part of Heinze’s plans.
Atlanta United is a far cry from the dynamic and wildly entertaining team that thrilled under Martino in 2018. After nine games, Atlanta currently sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. There are many reasons for the disappointing start to the 2021 season but defense and Robinson are not among them as they have conceded just 10 goals.
Robinson’s numbers remain solid this season and there have been times he has showed fantastic vision out of the backline to create plays and hit line-breaking passes.
Heinze has been quick to praise Robinson this season and on one occasion called Robinson a “fantastic player.” Robinson has now impressed each of the coaches has played under. A former standout at Syracuse University and also a top high school basketball player in Massachusetts as well, Robinson boasts elite athleticism and has thrived in soccer with solid coaching.
“The only thing we are doing with him is working with him,” Heinze said. “We are giving him the tools that we think are best for him. The football player is the one that is doing it here.”
De Boer, a world-class defender in his career, made similar comments before getting fired in 2020.
“He’s really difficult when you play one against one to beat,” said de Boer. “Because he is fast. He can turn fast. That’s, I think, your worst nightmare as player when you have those kinds of players who are tall, are strong, but can also turn fast and are quick on their feet.”
Robinson’s success with Atlanta United has yet to translate over to an extended look with the United States at the international level, but there have been a lot of reasons for that. The Covid-19 pandemic came at a tough time as he was making important progressions in his career. Then earlier this year, Atlanta United denied his release to participate in Olympic qualifying with the U-23 team – a situation he called “disappointing.”
Thus far, he only has three caps with the senior national team. They all came in friendlies – a second-half substitute in a 3-0 loss to Mexico in 2019, a start in a 1-1 draw with Uruguay, and another start in January's 7-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in which he also scored his first international goal.
Despite this limited involvement, Robinson is likely to be a starter in the Gold Cup for Berhalter and get an extended opportunity to make an impression.
It comes at a big time for the U.S. team as there are openings for the team moving forward in the cycle even when the entire player pool is available. In central defense, John Brooks is the clear first-choice starter, but no one has claimed the next several spots. Chris Richards was injured during the Nations League and still lacks experience. Mark McKenzie has been up and down with the national team and has yet to lock down a starting job at Genk. Matt Miazga played briefly in the Nations League and his club situation is in limbo. Tim Ream is aging and Aaron Long is out with a long-term injury.
When combined with the fact that Berhalter has been showing interest in playing with a three-man central defense in a 3-4-3, formation, there is a need for depth in central defense as Berhalter will likely need to play a number of different players in this position.
The weeks ahead will be a pivotal time for Robinson who will now have the opportunities that have eluded him so far in his career. If he takes advantage of them, the sky is the limit. He could overtake others in the national team depth chart, solidify a spot on the team for qualifying, and perhaps earn offers from European teams in the top five leagues.
For now, however, he will have to take it one game at a time. That starts on Sunday when Atlanta United hosts the New York Red Bulls with an opportunity to move closer to the playoff positions in the Eastern Conference.