COLUMBUS, Ohio — The U.S. Men’s National Team was 52 minutes into another marathon of frustration when the goal that had to come arrived in a flash. It was not scored by a striker, because the team essentially played without one. It was not scored by one of the several young American supermen playing at elite European clubs. No, it was left back Antonee Robinson who caped up, soared in and rescued the team’s advance toward the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“We call our fullbacks our superpower of our team,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters following a 1-0 victory over El Salvador at Lower.com Stadium. “We do that because they produce. They give assists and goals.”
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That might not be as sexy as X-ray vision, the ability to fly or whatever it is Batman does, but imagine how miserable Thursday night might have been without it. The U.S. flubbed one extraordinary opportunity and one decent one in the first half — both of those courtesy of Jesus Ferreira, the “false nine” Berhalter chose to start instead of regular center forward Ricardo Pepi. And there had to be a goal, because failing to defeat seventh-place El Salvador here in the States would have been close to disastrous.
“I was told to be positive, try to get in the box, be threatening, try to make runs in behind. So I just kept trying to find myself in good positions,” Robinson said. “It’s just down to being lucky to have put myself in a good position. I was just trying to keep my head down, put the ball in the far corner and, thankfully, it went in.”
Robinson’s goal came after another dangerous run by Tim Weah, playing on the right of the three-man U.S. forward line. Weah moved toward a nice forward ball from midfielder Weston McKennie, dipped underneath left back Roberto Dominguez, slipped the ball past tumbling center back Eduardo Vigil and fired a hard shot that was deflected by keeper Mario Gonzalez. The ball did not travel far, though, and Ferreira was able to head it toward the middle of the box, where both Weah and Christian Pulisic tried to maneuver to strike it home. Instead it rolled to Robinson, whose left-footed shot skimmed just above the turf and into the net.
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“In the first half, I thought we had a lot of opportunities to finish and score,” Weah told Sporting News. “But sometimes in football, it doesn’t work out the way you want it to. And I feel like we started a bit slow, but the second half we got back out there, got the rhythm going and started to feel more like ourselves.
“Antonee was at the right spot at the right time. And he was clinical and he finished it off.”
What Weah doesn’t know about Robinson, apparently, what no one who covers the team seemed to know until he spoke after the game, is that he prefers to be called “Jedi” rather than his given name. A massive “Star Wars” fan as a child, Robinson was assigned that nickname and said he told his teachers to call him that in school. Why he hasn’t been bold enough to have that stitched onto the back of his jersey, either with the USMNT or Fulham FC, his club in England’s Championship, he did not say.
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His emergence as the team’s regular left back has been one of the revelations of this CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign, which now sees the U.S. in second place with 18 points, one behind leader Canada but, most importantly, four ahead of fourth-place Panama. The top three teams of the eight competing will qualify automatically for Qatar 2022.
“We’re definitely one step closer,” Robinson said. “There was times when we played good football, times when we just had to kind of dig it out, chances we didn’t put away, but we got the win . . . so we’re all delighted.
“[Berhalter has] always said the fullbacks are really important. We see ourselves as a key part of the team; we want to get involved with the goals and assists. Luckily we have been doing that, and we’ll keep going.”
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The list of reliable American left backs is about as long as the list of fast-food franchises with Michelin stars. This position has vexed the USMNT for nearly as long as anyone has cared about the USMNT. At the 2002 World Cup, when the Americans reached the quarterfinals, coach Bruce Arena played the effervescent Frankie Hejduk out of position, across the field from where he typically played. In 2004, DaMarcus Beasley was moved back from his customary positions as a winger or midfielder to handle the job. In 2017, when the U.S. failed to qualify in that regrettably unforgettable defeat at Trinidad & Tobago, it was MLS veteran Jorge Villafana, who was only 10 months into a USMNT career that lasted only six games beyond that debacle.
In this qualifying cycle, though, Robinson has started six times out of nine games, and he has delivered two goals and an assist. More than anything, he has provided Berhalter with the security of not having to try to invent a functional left back.
And it was not just the goal, although that was most of it under the circumstances. He put two more solid shots on goal that Gonzalez was required to save, albeit both of them fired too close to the keeper. In protecting the shutout that became necessary as more time lapsed — and both McKennie and forward Gyasi Zardes sent free headers on set pieces flying over the crossbar — Robinson was alert to an El Salvador plot in the 69th to quickly switch the ball from their left to the right, where he was isolated as a defender with multiple opponents to confront. Goalkeeper Matt Turner gesticulated wildly to get his defenders’ attention, but Robinson calmly intervened to disrupt the move.
In the 80th minute, he stepped in again, directly above the box, to prevent the opposition from generating a scoring chance.
“It’s a mindset,” Berhalter told Sporting News. “He knows that he needs to be relentless on the field. He needs to attack and defend. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. And he understands that. So he gets forward, and his fitness is good enough to get back.
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“He was good on both sides of the ball. In the first half, a couple issues on his side, guys getting in behind him. But he corrected that, and in the second half, he played really well.”
Robinson’s personal superpower, by the way, is his goal celebration. After the ball slammed into the back of the net, he trotted to the left side of the goal, did a handspring into a full backward somersault and landed square on his cleats.
For fun, at the prompting of a good friend, he then pretended to have injured his hamstring.
He is human after all, capable of experiencing pain and joy.
“It’s an unreal feeling,” Robinson said. “It’s the best feeling in football, to score goals.”
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