Taylor’s performance prompted a live interview with MLS Season Pass reporter Katie Witham, placing him at the center of the bright global spotlight that follows his new teammate everywhere he goes. Mindful that his father, Paul, had stayed up quite late to watch Taylor and the Herons on Apple TV back home in Finland despite the seven-hour time difference, Witham offered the sudden sensation an open mic: Was there anything Robert wanted to say to his dad?
It’s the type of invitation few humans ever earn on live TV – a chance to speak directly to a parent at a high point in one’s career, perhaps to share the emotions of the moment with one of the people who’d made it all possible. Yet Taylor had a more pragmatic response than most.
“No,” he answered with a sheepish smile. “Just go to sleep.”
It was well past 5 am in the Nordic nation, after all. And in all likelihood, father and son would reconnect soon enough for an in-depth breakdown of the match, as is their usual practice. Paul, too, played the sport at a high level back in his day, going on to become a coach, which he still is today, and passing along his love for it to Robert.
“He coaches a junior team in Finland,” the younger Taylor later explained to MLSsoccer.com. “He's been coaching all his life, basically; he loves coaching. He did a few years at a first-team level, but I think he enjoys coaching the under-15 kind of ages more.
“He still coaches me. Every game, there’s something that he needs to point out,” he added, a wry note in his voice hinting at the relentlessness of dad’s devotion. “Every game there's something I need to do. But I think it's good that he tells me that, because obviously he's played himself, so he has his own ideas. And sometimes I disagree, and sometimes I agree with him.”
Messi's running mate
It’s a long, narrow and winding road that’s taken Taylor to South Florida, where he’s been Messi’s unexpected partner-in-crime in the euphoric opening weeks of the superstar’s North American adventure. Mind you, it was something of a Cinderella story even before the GOAT landed in town.
While he’d earned two dozen international caps for Finland by the time he signed with Miami ahead of the 2022 season, he’d played just one first-team club match outside of Scandinavia in his career and was startled, to put it mildly, when the Herons came knocking.
“My agent called me and said, ‘Rob, you gotta sit down for this.’ I was like, 'What now?'” recalled Taylor. “Then he said Inter Miami are interested in you. I told my agent, OK, that's the only thing. Forget everything else, I want to go there, basically. That was my first reaction. … That’s the only thing I needed to hear.
“I was on vacation in Miami in 2019,” he added. “And funnily enough, then I was thinking, what a place this would be to live in. And then a couple of years later, I'm walking down the same streets, living here.”
He’s had a similar sensation as Messi’s running mate and is statistically the most direct beneficiary of the Argentine icon’s impact with IMCF. With 4g/5a during Miami’s Leagues Cup run, Taylor almost matched in those seven games what he’d produced in his previous 52 matches with the Herons (5g/7a). He’s also been selfless in service to the collective, tracking back responsibly to defend and making hard runs that clear space for teammates.
Taylor’s been asked a thousand times why and how he struck up such swift, fruitful chemistry with Messi and fellow July reinforcements Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. He sees no secret or special recipe at work, just the elevating influence of three modern virtuosos he’s been admiring since adolescence.
“I can't really give you any other answer but just to say that it comes from just watching them play and knowing what they want to do on the ball,” said Taylor of the illustrious ex-FC Barcelona trio, while also praising the organization implemented by head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino. “It's also not just me they’ve got a good connection with, it’s the whole team. It's the whole squad. Whoever comes on the field, we all know what we're doing as a team now, so I think it's really, really good for us.
“What Messi and Busquets and Jordi Alba bring, it's reflecting on everyone, even the subs who come off the bench, they're all on the same wavelength. It just happens to look like me, Messi and Josef [Martínez] have some different connection because we're attacking players, so we're always involved, or mostly involved, when it comes to attacking.”
Taylor’s aptitude for combining with his famous new colleagues has inspired comparisons to Messi’s countryman Ángel Di María and even Andrés Iniesta, with one journalist playfully dubbing him “the Finniesta.” He says he hasn’t heard those honorifics, however, and is far too self-aware to encourage them.
“Well, we'll see about that. That's hard, that's a big, big name to stand for. I don’t think I'll live up to that anytime soon,” said Taylor of the Iniesta link with a laugh.
“I'm still Rob, I think.”
Non-league to breakout star
While he admits to being “not that much of a beach person; I like the pool better,” Taylor has embraced the SoFla lifestyle, buying a home in Pompano Beach not far from DRV PNK and IMCF’s training facility in Fort Lauderdale. It’s another irony of his story that he built and honed his skills in a vastly different environment from those sun-splashed shores: Finland’s dark, icy winters and gravelly training pitches.
It’s a long way – more than 5,000 miles – from Kuopio, the small city in eastern Finland where he was born. And the main reason Taylor’s story begins in Europe’s northern reaches, rather than Paul’s English homeland, is a roughly comparable journey well off the beaten path by his dad a few decades ago.
“He used to play non-league football in England,” explained Taylor of his father, who came up in Nottingham Forest’s system during the tenure of famed manager Brian Clough. “And then his friend calls from Finland, saying that there's a team who needs a player, basically, and that you should come here.
“Then my dad [asked], what division is that? Oh, the fourth division. My dad was so excited, so then he started comparing it to the English fourth division, thinking that's a professional league. So he thought it'd be the same in Finland. And then he gets there and it’s typical Sunday league football.”
With one-tenth the population and a frigid climate more conducive to winter sports, Finland’s soccer pyramid didn’t quite match the depth and breadth of England’s. Paul didn’t give up and fly home, though. It also certainly helped that he fell in love as well.
“Evidently, he was too good for the fourth division, started getting noticed and getting contracts in bigger teams,” said Robert, “and that's how he became a professional in Finland, and he met my mum in Finland.”
Mom doesn’t burn the midnight oil for Miami quite like dad.
“She decides to sleep like a normal person during my games,” said Taylor. “She's got work in the morning so she can't watch the game. Sometimes my dad screams too much so she wakes up during the games, but most of the time she just watches the highlights in the morning.”
Paul raised a soccer-mad son in a nation where hockey is traditionally king – “I was terrible at hockey,” Robert readily admits – and passed down the finer points of the sport. That includes his affinity for Manchester United, particularly the Red Devils’ vintage sides of the 1990s, including none other than Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham and former IMCF head coach Phil Neville and his brother Gary.
“Ever since I started walking he gave me a football at my feet and told me to kick it,” said Taylor of his father’s tutelage. “He used to love watching United back in the days when it was the Class of ‘92 – Beckham, the Nevilles … That team with Sir Alex Ferguson, he used to love watching them, so obviously made me watch that as well. And that's how I got my love for the game and also I somewhat started supporting United the most.
“Then I started idolizing David Beckham also, tried to copy him in some ways when I was a kid. Wanted to have his squad number and tried to do his hairstyle.”
Climbing the football pyramid
That legacy, and those cross-Atlantic ties, have made it that much easier for Taylor to share the thrills of his MLS breakthrough with his father. Paul had already scheduled a Stateside visit before Miami embarked on their Leagues Cup run, and the timing aligned for him to attend the tournament final in Nashville, where Taylor Twellman even interviewed father and son together on the pitch as they celebrated the Herons’ victory.
Paul’s unlikely sojourn to Finland proved a fateful influence on his son’s soccer career. Robert didn’t have to navigate England’s ferociously competitive youth landscape until he moved there in search of an academy scholarship at age 16, which might have set back his development.
“In England football’s the biggest sport and in Finland football, when I was a kid, it wasn't that big,” he said. “When I was playing football in Finland, we could only play inside school halls in the winter and during the summers, you'd have to play on like this kind of hard sand; there was no [grass] fields. Ice hockey was the number-one sport, so football was still very small.”
Then again, those long Finnish winters helped him cultivate superb technical skills – so much so that he became an adept freestyler, making extra money as a street performer in his youth. That gave him an atypical profile compared to his English peers when he unsuccessfully tried to catch on at Forest, then spent time at lower-league side Lincoln City before returning home to earn his first pro contract at a smaller Finnish club called JJK Jyväskylä.
An ill-fated loan stint at non-league outfit Lincoln Moorlands Railway FC, some 10 rungs down the English club hierarchy, provided him with a sobering moment of clarity as a teenager.
“The coach told me that I wasn’t good enough to start,” Taylor recounted to In Bed With Maradona in 2017. “I sat on the bench and watched the players kick the ball up and down the pitch and the coach smoking on the sidelines. It was then I decided I needed to leave.”
After his setbacks in England, where he was perceived to be ill-equipped for the bruising physicality of the lower divisions, Taylor slowly, painstakingly climbed the ladder in Scandinavia via productive stints at RoPS, then Swedish power AIK, and Tromsø and Brann in Norway.
That led to opportunities with the Huuhkajat (“Eagle-owls”), Finland’s increasingly competitive national team, and eventually pushed him onto the radar of Miami chief soccer officer Chris Henderson and his staff. They were seeking budget-friendly reinforcements for a Herons side forced to rebuild their squad while under sanction for roster rule violations during IMCF’s inaugural 2020 campaign.
Given how far he’s come, it’s understandable that Taylor is savoring every aspect of his current moment, taking nothing for granted.
“Everyone's going to face ups and downs in their career. It's just how you deal with negative parts and how you come up from those,” he said. “I think I've been fortunate enough to handle them pretty decent, I guess, not giving up easily. And I think that's why I made it to MLS so far – that’s part of the reason, being mentally strong, not giving up.”
It’s been a memorable ride, and with Messi and his family clearly enjoying their new surroundings at the outset of a contract that runs through 2025, it might just roll on for some time to come.
“It's still amazing to have him around training and calling him your teammate,” said Taylor. “When it comes to games, he is the best in the world. So we're going to be creating trouble for teams through him a lot this year. And I'm excited to see more of him, even.”