Time has a habit of moving really, really quickly. You know that, I know that, Ferris Bueller knows that, we all know that. One minute you’re an expansion team and the next minute you’re lifting MLS Cup – or you’re opening a wooden spoon that was sent to you in the mail. Either way.
I say all this to point out the 2022 FIFA World Cup is less than a year away. It’s going to be here before we know it. And with that in mind, I’m going to be using Second Spectrum’s data over the next few weeks to look at several MLS players who could feature at the tournament in Qatar.
What do the numbers say about Robinson? And what might 2022 mean for him? Let’s talk about it.
At 24 years old, Robinson is just entering the prime of his career. He played more than 2,300 minutes for Atlanta during the 2021 regular season and postseason and was a consistent presence on a team that lacked consistency in the manager role. Between Gabriel Heinze, Rob Valentino and current head coach Gonzalo Pineda, ATLUTD players spent much of the season on a managerial roller coaster – yet he still placed on the 2021 MLS Best XI.
Even while balancing that with USMNT camps and games, Robinson put up some impressive numbers in MLS and earned himself a starting spot in the USMNT’s backline. Defensively, Robinson ranked in the 85th percentile in aerial duel win percentage among center backs with at least 10 aerial duels. Being in the 85th percentile doesn’t paint him as a fully top-tier, elite defensive ball-winner, but it's clear Robinson is no slouch in the air. When you watch him and get a feel for his athleticism, it’s no surprise the center back was a former high school basketball star.
He has the hops. And he has the speed: Robinson’s top speed of 9.5 meters per second last year placed him 26th among 243 eligible center backs in MLS in terms of straight-line speed. With that athletic combination, Robinson is a nightmare for opposing attackers. There’s a reason Michael Parkhurst called him “the best one-on-one defender” he’s ever played with.
Robinson isn’t flawless with the ball at his feet, but he has the skill to thread balls through the lines to allow his teammates to drive toward goal.
Playing in a tactical system with Atlanta United that prioritizes possession, it makes sense the former 2017 SuperDraft pick (No. 2 overall out of Syracuse) put up some of the highest volume passing numbers in MLS last season. Only six players attempted more passes in MLS than Robinson in 2021. Attempting a lot of passes is great, but more important than volume is understanding what Robinson does with that volume.
A look at the numbers from last season tells us Robinson is generally a pretty conservative passer. He ranked in the 63rd percentile among center backs in expected completion percentage and in the 53rd percentile in opponents bypassed per 100 passes in 2021, indicating he didn’t take a ton of risks with the ball. Part of Robinson’s conservative passing should be attributed to his team’s overall style. Under Heinze, Atlanta often fell into the purposeless possession trap and they never really escaped that trap as the season progressed.
While Robinson struggled to progress the ball with his passing in 2021, he put up some extremely impressive dribbling numbers last year. He ranked in the 98th percentile among center backs in average opponents bypassed per touch and in the 89th percentile in average forward distance traveled per touch. When he’s presented with space and/or an unsuspecting opponent, Robinson has no issue driving right past them.
If you got tired of reading somewhere up above, don’t worry. I’ve got a TL;DR for you that summarizes Robinson’s statistical profile:
- Strong in the air
- High volume passer
- Room to pass forward more often
- Drives forward on the dribble
If 2021 is anything to go off of, 2022 could be a huge year for Robinson. After making his USMNT debut in 2019, Robinson stormed onto the international stage earlier this year, starting every single Gold Cup game for the United States and scoring the game-winning goal against Mexico to win the Gold Cup Final in extra time. In World Cup Qualifying, Robinson has started six of the Yanks’ eight qualifiers, only missing the loss to Panama and the recent draw with Jamaica because of Gregg Berhalter’s decision to rotate his lineup against Panama and due to two yellow cards against Mexico.
Because of Robinson’s rise, questions that once surrounded the USMNT’s right-sided center back spot now seem incredibly distant. As long as the Atlanta United defender is healthy and available, all signs point to Robinson starting for the USMNT in World Cup Qualifying and in the World Cup – should the US make it to Qatar.
If potential World Cup experience wasn’t enough for one year, there's also the distinct possibility Robinson may move to a European club in the near future. While The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas reported there have been no concrete offers for Robinson, there are reports that a number of Bundesliga, Premier League and other European clubs are interested in him. With his athleticism, ball-carrying ability and international profile, the vultures are going to circle.
Based on what ATLUTD vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra recently told Doug Roberson of The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, a move doesn’t quite seem imminent.
“Looking for him to have a big, big year next year for us and the national team,” Bocanegra said.
Though his lack of consistent forward passing is a concern (that I really do believe could be smoothed out by a good coach), Robinson generally fits the mold of a modern center back. According to data analyst Paul Harvey, Robinson’s statistical profile paints him as a similar center back to Liverpool’s Joel Matip, Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji and Lazio’s Francesco Acerbi.
Whatever 2022 holds for Robinson, be it a starting spot in the World Cup, a move to a European team, a key role in Atlanta United’s first full season under Pineda – or even some combination of all of those things – expect to see Robinson doing big things next year.