National Writer: Charles Boehm

Why the Gold Cup is a key phase in Miles Robinson’s unusual international career

Miles Robinson – Atlanta United - head upfield

Miles Robinson turned 24 in March, and the well-rounded center back has been collecting accolades at a clip befitting one of the top talents in the US men’s national team player pool.

US Under-20 national team call-up and ACC Defender of the Year in his second and final season of college soccer at Syracuse. Generation adidas member and No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick a year later. Then 2018 MLS Cup winner with Atlanta United, followed by U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup trophies and an MLS Best XI nod in his first year as a starter in 2019.

Yet his senior international career doesn’t match up – not yet. He currently stands on just three USMNT caps, all of them in friendlies. He’s suited up for just one competitive game, a 7-0 Concacaf Nations League drubbing of Cuba at Audi Field in October 2019, and was not called into action by Gregg Berhalter.

What transpired after the final whistle that night in Washington, D.C. complicated Robinson’s USMNT progression – through no fault of his own.

Robinson injured his hamstring while taking part in postgame fitness work undergone by the reserves, forcing him to leave camp early and ruling him out for what proved to be the entirety of Atlanta’s MLS Cup Playoffs campaign later that month.

Such workouts are a commonplace activity by both club and national teams, and then-Five Stripes boss Frank de Boer admitted the strain might easily have happened the moment he rejoined his club instead. But the damage was done. De Boer and his ATLUTD colleagues were left fuming on the eve of their title defense.

“He goes on international duty, and 11:00 at night after a game where he sat on the bench, they're doing a hard training session and he's doing sprints and he pulls his hamstring,” club president Darren Eales said in a Sports Radio 92.9 appearance. “Just really disappointed that he was put in that position.”

This past March, Atlanta decided not to release Robinson and his teammates – left back George Bello and right back Brooks Lennon – to the US U-23s for Concacaf Olympic qualifying, a left-handed compliment of sorts. Robinson was slated to anchor Jason Kreis’ backline in the tournament, but it clashed with Atlanta’s Concacaf Champions League schedule.

“I was definitely disappointed,” Robinson told reporters at the time, expressing hope that he would get to take part in the Tokyo Summer Games if they earned a spot. “The fact is, I wasn't allowed to go. Definitely all of my support goes out to that team. Was texting some of the guys – I'm super excited, I have so much faith in them.”

The US U-23s were ultimately unsuccessful, however, crashing out to Honduras one game short of qualification. And Robinson could only watch from afar and await his next opportunity to make an impact for his country.

That has now arrived this month, in the form of a central role in the USMNT’s hunt for the 2021 Gold Cup title. Berhalter called Robinson and Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman “solid starters” at center back as he unveiled his 23-man roster last week, adding that the positional depth chart “is pretty thin” behind them given the scant international experience of Donovan Pines and James Sands as the Yanks look to wrest Concacaf’s oldest honor away from rivals Mexico.

“I'm definitely grateful to be here,” said the soft-spoken Robinson in a Tuesday media availability from Kansas City, the USMNT’s home base for the duration of group-stage play. “I'm excited, I'm ready to go, I'm feeling healthy and energetic to be out here. It's always an honor to represent the United States. So I’m definitely excited to get to work.”

It’s hard to imagine a better scenario in which the Boston-area native can drive home his national-team bonafides. The US face a tricky Group B assignment and have left many of their first-choice regulars at home to rest ahead of the intense World Cup qualifying slate that begins in early September. While winning the Gold Cup remains the standard for Berhalter’s group, expectations have moderated a bit in these circumstances, giving this MLS-heavy squad an aura of hunters rather than hunted.

As winding as his international path has been to this point, Robinson has more to offer than ever. A prototypical modern central defender versed in both three- and four-player back lines, he’s technical, tall and commanding but also fleet of foot, quick on the turn and excellent one-on-one and in the air. His distribution has always been clean, but the long hours spent working with Atlanta’s succession of famous imported managers have honed it noticeably, which meshes well with Berhalter’s ideas.

“Early on, my first camps with Gregg were definitely learning experiences, getting used to the competition of the play,” said Robinson, “but also getting to know how he wants to play, things like that. How we utilize our [No.] 6 when we're playing and try to create those line-breaking passes. And that's something I've definitely worked on and tried to improve on.

“That's something I've been trying to focus on – switching play, hitting long balls and stuff like this,” he added. “I've just continued to try to get better and still remain humble, understanding that I can always do better. So that's kind of my mindset.”

From another angle, this month’s chance arrives not a moment too soon, considering that Robinson faces some ferocious positional competition in the US pool. He was left off Berhalter’s final roster for the Nations League knockout stages, a squad in which the defensive corps was entirely European-based, and needs to make an impression before Octagonal challenges arrive as the road to Qatar 2022 unfolds.

Little wonder a Soccer America headline dubbed it the “biggest summer of his career” this week.

“It's definitely something you have to be proud of, being part of a group of young, strong, talented center backs,” said Robinson. “But for me personally, I'm just focused on myself and the group as a whole and trying to win games.”

The US open vs. Haiti at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday night (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN) before meeting Martinique there next Thursday (9:30 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, TUDN). The July 18 Group B finale against Canada (5 pm ET | FOX, Univision, TUDN) looms large, given that the group runner-up gets dropped into the same side of the knockout bracket as Mexico, who are overwhelming favorites to dominate Group A (and beyond).

All that offers both promise and peril, and something similar can be said for Robinson’s USMNT aspirations. The month of July figures to reveal a great deal about both the team and his place in it.