The Hell is Real derby between the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati has shot into prominence as one of MLS’s most entertainingly intense matchups, fueled by the Ohio clubs’ rise into the league elite and the colorfully quirky nature of the respective fanbases’ trash talk over its first seven years of existence.

It will undoubtedly remain the case at Lower.com Field on Saturday as the two sides in possession of MLS’s two biggest trophies tangle again in the showcase fixture of the first matchday of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire (7:45 pm ET | Apple TV - Free; FS1/FOX Deportes).

All that said, anyone with a passing familiarity with the rabid sporting culture of the Boston area can imagine how Miles Robinson may have experienced even nastier antagonism in the fierce local showdowns of his adolescence in Arlington, Massachusetts.

“You got generations of people growing up in the same town, they’re very prideful in where they're from – and they definitely don't like you if you're not from where they’re from,” the FCC defender told MLSsoccer.com last week. “That type of energy, that passion that you can definitely see when you see all of Boston sports.”

There was no love lost when his Arlington High School teams faced off against their counterparts from places like Belmont, Winchester and Wellesley – and in Robinson’s case, those were actually happening on a court rather than a field, because he played basketball, not soccer, for AHS, due to rules restricting top club players from playing school soccer.

He was no slouch, either, despite spending most of the year playing soccer: He won league co-MVP honors and led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. Brian Ainscough, CEO of the Boston Bolts, Robinson’s club soccer team, told Boston.com “we’re just fortunate enough he wasn’t a few inches taller. He might have been playing basketball for Syracuse. We’re lucky we have him as a soccer player.”

Miles Robinson - FC Cincinnati - 1

Youth journey

Unsurprisingly, his talent made him a target for opposing fans on those cold winter nights at gyms across the region.

“Those high-school basketball games when you get individually booed, like, that type of energy is pretty sweet, honestly. I remember getting pretty harassed, almost, in high school basketball,” he recalled, the enjoyment of the memories clear in his voice. “That type of energy definitely brings out the best in me.”

Robinson has shown as much throughout his career. In youth soccer, he and his Bolts teammates took a special delight in locking horns with their local professional academy, the New England Revolution. Avert your eyes here, Revs fans: In a parallel universe, the commanding center back might have turned out as a homegrown signing for the club.

“They did,” said Robinson when asked if the Revs recruited him to join their system. “And I remember Syracuse kind of wanted me to go there too. And I was like, ‘nope.’

“I was always loyal to the Boston Bolts; I always thought they were a great organization, and they always did right by me," Robinson said of what's now an MLS NEXT program. "Honestly, the Revs wasn't even really close to where I was. Boston Bolts were just easier for me to go to, but also, I was always a part of them, and I wouldn't want to leave … I think I made the right decision. And definitely, all the love goes out to Bolts and Syracuse for helping develop me.”

The journey continued in heated NCAA clashes in Atlantic Coast Conference play, traditionally considered the top competition level in college soccer. Robinson’s Orange dueled bold-faced names like North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and Clemson – “Oh yeah, we hated Clemson for sure,” he said, perhaps remembering a tense meeting with the Tigers at the 2015 College Cup, Clemson booking a trip to the national championship game via a penalty-kick shootout after a 0-0 deadlock.

His upward progress earned him a Generation adidas contract after his sophomore year, Atlanta United snatching him with the second overall SuperDraft pick as they prepared for their MLS expansion debut in 2017.

Miles Robinson - FC Cincinnati - 3

USMNT vs. Mexico

As he matured into one of the top defenders on the continent and became a regular member of the US men’s national team, Robinson showed a knack for big performances in big games. And in Concacaf, they rarely come bigger than USMNT vs. Mexico, particularly when hardware is on the line, as it was when Robinson scored the game-winning goal on a 117th-minute header to cap a man-of-the-match display in the 2021 Gold Cup final, prompting an epic night out in Las Vegas for Gregg Berhalter and his squad.

“You need a little rivalry in sports, just to add some pressure and tension in any environment, whether it's like a local game, or town soccer, up to Syracuse, obviously big ACC matchups, and then with Atlanta, Orlando was our big rival. And then with the national team, it’s obviously Mexico that we play quite often,” he said. “Those games are the ones you want to play in and you want to perform well.

“When it's a rivalry game and you feel the passion in the crowd, that type of energy definitely can translate onto the pitch.”

Robinson’s approach to occasions of this magnitude has evolved over the years.

“Early in my career, I’d get really nervous. I think I still get nervous, but it's the type of nerves that propel you into a different level, almost, of focus and attention in the match,” he explained. “Those types of nerves, those butterflies that you can kind of harness in the right way to perform well.”

Miles Robinson - USMNT

Choosing Cincy

DeAndre Yedlin saw this as he got to know Robinson on USMNT duty, and is now also his colleague on Cincy’s back line thanks to a trade from Inter Miami CF earlier this year.

“He's one of the most relaxed guys ever. Very, very calm, just an even keel. You don't really hear him yell a lot – honestly, you don’t hear him talk a lot,” said Yedlin. “But he's one of those guys that just speaks with his actions. There's not many center backs that I've played with before this that I felt as comfortable playing with as Miles.

“Especially with the way that we want to play, which is pretty high intensity, and where I'm on the front foot a lot and I'm pushing forward pretty high a lot, you need somebody that can cover space. So that's the perfect guy to do it. He's a freak athlete, obviously. Good on the ball, really good in the air – there’s not a lot of flaws to his game.”

Yedlin’s words follow closely those of coach Pat Noonan and others around the Orange & Blue who were thrilled when FCC convinced Robinson they were the best next step in his career when he left Atlanta as “probably the most coveted free agent” in MLS last winter, in the words of general manager Chris Albright.

Note carefully: That’s ‘best next step,’ not ‘next best.’ Despite being widely expected, for years, to try his hand in Europe at that point, Robinson signed a rare ‘1 + 1’ contract with Cincy instead, balancing his earning power and hunger for winning with the desire for future flexibility via a seven-figure wage without a long-term Designated Player deal.

“Being a free agent is pretty unique to a lot of MLS players; a lot of players never get that opportunity, especially in MLS. So I think I wanted to take advantage of it,” Robinson told MLSsoccer.com during Cincinnati’s preseason camp in Clearwater, Florida. “In general, it's very rare to have a short-term deal in MLS and I think that can be very beneficial, especially someone like me, that can be in the national team pool. It's kind of like betting on myself, hoping I can do the best, and I think this is a place where I'm going to be set up for success.

“If I'm going to potentially lose money going overseas, I wouldn't really want to do it, in general,” he added. “Based on all the situation, every aspect of the decision, I think it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to come here, whether it be financially, based on my friends and family, my career, all that.”

Miles Robinson - FC Cincinnati - header

Trusting your gut

It provided a fresh setting, a galvanizing change he felt he needed, without gambling on too many variables shifting all at once. That means something when you consider the most traumatic public setback of his career thus far: the ruptured Achilles tendon in Atlanta that crushed his 2022 World Cup dreams, an experience Robinson says “made me more patient, and recognize how much I love this sport, and I want to continue to be a player for as long as possible.”

He believes European adventures are still out there to be had, just as the 2026 World Cup looms on the horizon, heightening both the opportunities and the perils at his feet. Staying closer to home to hunt further MLS honors in the meantime almost instantly made Robinson a flashpoint among the very online USMNT supporter community, a hefty chunk of which declared he had to cross the Atlantic now, not later.

“A lot of people look at players’ situations and they think soccer is the only thing that they have going on in their life,” said Yedlin, who’s lived both sides of this equation as a richly-hyped young export who spent seven years in the English Premier League and Turkish Süper Lig before returning to MLS in 2022. “We got families, we've got children, there's certain stuff that could be going on off the field.

“So I think a lot of people were surprised the fact that he decided to stay in MLS, or maybe disappointed was the word. But at the end of the day, nobody else is living his life. Nobody else knows what he's going through. And at the end of the day, it's his decision. He's worked to get where he is, he's worked to get the contracts that he's gotten, and it’s his decision.”

Berhalter himself laid out the stakes in clear terms.

“The expectations will be that he's a dominant center back in this league, that he performs at a really high level at this league,” said the US coach in January. “And I think he's well aware of that.”

Miles Robinson - FC Cincinnati - 4

Hell is Real

With FCC hard on the heels of Leo Messi’s league-leading Inter Miami in this season’s early going, anchored by his elite backline corps, Robinson feels confident in his choice.

“To dominate, your team has to be one of the best in the league and I think we're proving that,” he said. “We have to continue to grow as a team and play well, because I think at the end of the day, if the team looks good then every individual on the team looks just as good. So for me personally, I'm just trying to bring that as a team, hopefully win trophies and then the rest will hopefully fall into place.

“We're in pretty good form now, but we’ve got a lot to build on, and I think everyone still has a few more gears left in them.”

It’s not only Berhalter who’s closely watching Robinson’s level in Cincy. As the most prominent MLS-based USMNTer, his place in the national-team pool will be scrutinized for many reasons, by many observers as this summer’s US-based Copa América, the biggest event on the team’s calendar in the ‘22 cycle, looms.

A big result this weekend against a menacing Crew side that just reached the Concacaf Champions Cup final via some of the best MLS performances against Liga MX opposition ever seen? That’s a decent way to keep yourself in the national conversation.

“It's a rivalry that's gained national recognition over the last few seasons, since Cincinnati’s been an elite team in the league and obviously Columbus had a great season last year,” said Robinson. “You just have two very talented rosters and I think it's definitely going to be a good game between both sides, and great coaches involved.

“It's big for the state of Ohio, that's for sure.”