How jazz, basketball & family lifted Miles Robinson to MLS and the USMNT

Miles Robinson - Atlanta United - Close up

Miles Robinson won’t tell you how good he is.

“To this day, he’s the most humble person I've ever met,” said his elder sister of three years, Rebecca Robinson, “but you would never know how successful he was if it wasn't for me and my family bragging about him.”

Someone had to do it. The Arlington, Massachusetts, native’s growth this season with Atlanta United is a massive achievement for both the player and club. After only four starts through his first two years with Atlanta United, Robinson has upgraded his squad status from a fringe contributor to a vital component of a team that has already won the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019.

His teammates’ praise speaks volumes, but there’s always an air of bias when you hear fellow Five Stripes' defenders Leandro Gonzalez Pirez call Robinson “an amazing player,” or Michael Parkhurst say “he’s the best one-on-one defender I’ve ever seen.”

But others in the soccer world are taking notice, too. Robinson was named to Gregg Berhalter's provisional 40-man roster for the Gold Cup and the young center back was officially called up to the US men's national team for upcoming games against Mexico (Sept. 6) and Uruguay (Sept. 10).

Who is Miles Robinson?

Robinson grew up in what his mother admits is an atypical family. His father, Jeff, is a professional jazz musician and his mom, Jane, the breadwinner of the family. A biracial couple. A sister who excelled athletically just as much as he did. Early education at a Quaker school. It’s these distinctive features of Miles Robinson’s childhood that shaped the player and person we see today.

Jane says it was Miles’s childhood school, Cambridge Friends School, that helped form her son’s selfless character.

“They recognize people's strengths, but they also help [kids] understand that while you might be really good at one thing, somebody else is a lot better than you at another thing,” said Jane Madden. “They teach you to be allies of people that aren't as strong or as fortunate as you are. He would show that on the soccer field, I think.”

On the field, Miles has always been the best. Jane laughs when reminiscing with parents of teammates past, who now acknowledge that their kids weren’t nearly as good at soccer as they thought. “It was really just Miles,” they’ll say.

Robinson hasn’t played for a long list of clubs. He’s played professionally for the team that selected him with the second overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Atlanta United. He played in college for Syracuse University for two seasons. Prior to that, he spent his entire life playing for the same club team through all the age groups, the Boston Bolts. The overseer of all the clubs in the Bolts’ umbrella, executive director Brian Ainscough, casts his mind back to his first memories of seeing Robinson on the field.

“He was this big, long, skinny, athletic 9-year old. Nothing phased him,” Ainscough recalls. “He just always did his job and did it with a smile. Obviously, he had something you always looked at that made you go 'Wow.' He had a little bit of 'it' in him that made everything look easy.”

How jazz, basketball & family lifted Miles Robinson to MLS and the USMNT -

Robinson playing for the Boston Bolts | Courtesy of The Robinson Family

The characteristics Ainscough references are apparent when watching Robinson play. Much like his athletic ability, these mental qualities are inherited, not taught. 

“He takes after his father in that way,” laughs his mother. “Jeff is very soft-spoken. When he's at parties or whatever, he won't be the one that's the life of the party. He's the one off in the corner having a really in-depth conversation.”

Jeff’s career meant that Miles and his older sister Becca grew up with music as big parts of their lives. The kids would wake up on weekend mornings to the sound of dad’s saxophone permeating every corner of the house. Miles, if you haven’t guessed by now, is indeed named after jazz legend Miles Davis.

Maybe it’s no surprise that a musician’s kids would grow up intent on honing their mental dexterity and physical techniques through regimented training. Even as a toddler, Miles, three years Becca’s junior, watched as his sister — a competitive soccer player in her own right — trained and worked on drills at training sessions. Miles watched the girls’ skills from the sideline and tried to replicate them on his own. 

But training didn’t stop after practice. In time, the pair would regularly walk down the street from their house to the open fields and practice their touches, simultaneously honing their game and their relationship with one another. Those sessions with Becca helped Miles with the Bolts, where Ainscough says he’s used as an example for coaches to show young players.

“Miles just came every day and did the right things … smiling, happy, never late, great character, humble, always helping his teammates,” said Ainscough. “He led with a quiet humility. People knew he was fantastic, but he never blew his own horn. But all the other players knew he was something special, even at the younger ages. … He had all those traits of a potential footballer who was going to make it at the next level.”

How jazz, basketball & family lifted Miles Robinson to MLS and the USMNT -

Robinson with his sister Becca | Courtesy of The Robinson Family

No player was better than Miles on his high school basketball team. Yes, basketball.

While Robinson was playing soccer in the spring and fall (and even futsal in the snowy northeastern winters), he made time to play basketball for Arlington High School. It was his way to do what he’s always loved to do — compete — but to do it alongside friends and schoolmates that existed beyond his soccer sphere.

“I think [Atlanta Hawks guard] Trae Young would have a hard time scoring on him,” said his basketball coach at Arlington High School, John Bowler. “Miles’ athletic IQ is off the charts. The way he saw the floor, the way he changed speeds to fool defenders, the way he timed his jumps for rebounds or jumping passing lanes.  He was not only the most athletic player on the court, but he was also the smartest. I believe Miles would’ve been a D1 hoops player if that was his No. 1 sport.”

Pretty impressive for a kid that only played the sport when it was in-season, but it probably won’t surprise any fans in Atlanta who’ve kept a close eye on his progression in 2019. They’ve seen Robinson bait and take the ball off some of the best attacking players in the Western Hemisphere, including LAFC’s Carlos Vela, Monterrey’s Rogelio Funes Mori and Club America’s Roger Martinez.

Physically-gifted center backs aren’t uncommon in MLS or in the USMNT player pool. But breaking through at the highest levels requires a certain blend of both physical and mental strength. Robinson is one of the few that possesses both in spades.

“Miles was the most versatile player I’ve ever coached or coached against,” Bowler said of his four-year varsity basketball player. “Freshman year, he was a guard. As a sophomore, he was a 5-foot 10-inch center. We had no size, but with his jumping ability he was a relentless defender. He never played center before, but he was the consummate team player and did whatever he could do to help the team win.

“As a junior he played the wing and led our league in scoring and as a senior he was a playmaker like Russell Westbrook. Miles would guard point guards to centers,” added Bowler. “His senior year he probably had 20 to 30 dunks, and after each one just turned and found his man on defense, never celebrated or brought attention to himself. He was always thinking about what’s next.”

How jazz, basketball & family lifted Miles Robinson to MLS and the USMNT -

Robinson playing basketball | Courtesy of The Robinson Family

What is next for Miles Robinson is a good question. On the micro level, he’s still a young player with lots to learn. In Robinson’s rookie season, fellow center back Bobby Boswell said Tata Martino’s assistant Dario Sala doubted if their on-ball abilities were good enough to play in his system. Robinson made only four starts under Martino, all of which came in a three-man backline, affording the Massachusetts native ample cover and passing options around him.

But that part of his game is coming around, too, as noted by Frank de Boer following the team’s 2-0 win over the LA Galaxy on Aug. 3. 

“What was very positive for me was Miles’ play today, especially with the ball,” said De Boer. “He had some good provoking, dribbling in, and then passing to the free men in between lines and he did it fantastic. We already said it many times with him, look to those balls, and today he found those spaces and it was really nice to see.”

In Atlanta, Robinson is in an ideal position to learn and round out the rough edges of his game. It helps to be managed by a former defender in De Boer, who retired as Holland’s all-time caps leader. But crucially, Robinson has mentors on the field.

“It's different [this season] because I am the player with more experience,” Gonzalez Pirez said earlier this season. “So he takes now my place as the [young defender] and I am now more the daddy. I try to help him to make good decisions. He's a great player and has a great condition, so maybe he will be a star player if he decides. I'm trying to help him the most I can.”

Gonzalez Pirez hints at what might be next for Robinson: stardom.

“For me, he has all the traits to push on forward. I definitely believe he's a national team-level player,” said his boyhood coach Ainscough, who keeps in close contact with Robinson. “I've always said he's going to be at least a 10-year pro in MLS, and now I'm saying maybe he can go further than MLS if he keeps showing his stature. He has things that other players don't have. His athleticism is fantastic, but he also has that calmness. If you put him in another team in another country, it wouldn't matter. He's the same guy.”

There it is again. You can’t talk to anyone who’s coached Robinson without them eventually returning to his selfless attitude — the same attitude that forbids him from saying anything remotely self-congratulatory.

As is tradition in Atlanta, Robinson received a custom designed electric guitar as a prize for his man of the match performance in their recent 2-1 win over Eastern Conference rivals NYCFC. It was the first time he’s won it. When asked in the locker room what he’ll do with the guitar, Robinson shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ll probably give it to my dad,” said Robinson. “He plays.”