Friday, May 27

USMNT on the brink of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification thanks to unlikely hero Antonee Robinson

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The US Men’s National Team was in the 52nd minute of another marathon of frustration when the goal that was meant to come came in the blink of an eye. It was not scored by a striker, because the team basically played without him. It was not scored by one of several young American supermen playing for elite European clubs. No, it was left-back Antonee Robinson who covered, shot up and rescued the team’s advance to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“We call our fullbacks our superpower of our team,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters after a 1-0 win over El Salvador at Stadium. “We do it because they produce. They provide assists and goals.”

USA-EL SALVADOR: Updates, highlights as they happened

That might not be as sexy as X-ray vision, the ability to fly, or whatever Batman does, but imagine how miserable Thursday night could have been without it. The United States squandered one extraordinary and one decent opportunity in the first half, both courtesy of Jesús Ferreira, the “false nine” Berhalter chose to start in place of regular center forward Ricardo Pepi. And there had to be a goal, because not having defeated seventh place El Salvador here in the United States would have been almost disastrous.

“They told me to be positive, to try to get into the box, to be threatening, to try to make runs from behind. So I kept trying to find myself in good positions,” Robinson said. “It’s just luck of putting me in a good position. I was just trying to keep my head down, put the ball in the far corner and luckily it went in.”

Robinson’s goal came after another dangerous run by Tim Weah, who was playing to the right of the USA’s three-man forward line. Weah moved into a good forward ball from midfielder Weston McKennie, went under the left back Roberto Domínguez, slid the ball past central defender Eduardo Vigil and fired a hard shot that was deflected by goalkeeper Mario González. However, the ball didn’t travel very far and Ferreira was able to head it into the middle of the box, where both Weah and Christian Pulisic tried to maneuver it in for a finish. Instead, he rolled to Robinson, whose left-footed shot skimmed the turf and into the net.

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“In the first half, I thought we had a lot of chances to finish and score,” Weah told Sporting News. “But sometimes in football, it doesn’t work the way you want it to. And I feel like we started off a bit slow, but in the second half we came back out, got the groove back and started to feel more like ourselves.” .

“Antonee was in the right place at the right time. And it was clinical and it was over.”

What Weah doesn’t know about Robinson, apparently, what no one who covers the team seemed to know until he spoke up after the game, is that he prefers to be called “Jedi” instead of his first name. A huge “Star Wars” fan growing up, Robinson was assigned that nickname and said he told his teachers to call him that at school. He didn’t say why he hasn’t been bold enough to have it sewn on the back of his jersey, whether with the USMNT or Fulham FC, his club in the English Championship.

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His appearance as the team’s regular left back has been one of the revelations of this CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign, which now sees the USA. The top three teams out of the eight competing will automatically qualify for Qatar 2022.

“We’re definitely one step closer,” Robinson said. “There were times when we played good football, times when we just had to dig up, opportunities that we didn’t get, but we got the win… so we’re all delighted.

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“[Berhalter has] I have always said that the sides are very important. We see ourselves as a key part of the team; we want to get involved with goals and assists. Luckily we’ve been doing it and we’ll keep going.”

WHAT WE LEARNED: McKennie a force, the attack sizzles

The list of reliable American left backs is as long as the list of Michelin-starred fast food franchises. This position has irritated the USMNT for almost 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 normally played. In 2004, DaMarcus Beasley was removed from his usual positions as a winger or midfielder to take over the position. In 2017, when the US failed to qualify in that woefully unforgettable loss in Trinidad and Tobago, it was MLS veteran Jorge Villafana, who was just 10 months into a USMNT career that lasted just six games after that debacle.

However, in this qualifying cycle, Robinson has started six times from nine games and has delivered two goals and one assist. More than anything, it has given Berhalter the security of not having to try and invent a functional left-back.

And it wasn’t just the goal, although that was most of it under the circumstances. He took two more solid shots on goal that Gonzalez had to save, though both were shot too close to the goalkeeper. Protecting the shutout that became necessary as time wore on, and both McKennie and forward Gyasi Zardes sending free headers from set pieces that flew over the crossbar, Robinson was alert to an El Salvador plot in the 69th. to quickly switch the ball from his left to his right, where he became isolated as a defender with multiple opponents to deal with. Goalkeeper Matt Turner gestured wildly to draw the attention of his defenders, but Robinson calmly intervened to break up the movement.

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In the 80th minute, he intervened again, directly above the area, to prevent the rivals from generating a goal chance.

“It’s a mentality,” Berhalter told Sporting News. “He knows he needs to be relentless on the pitch. He needs to attack and defend. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. And he understands that. So he’s moving forward and his fitness is good enough to come back.

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“He was good on both sides of the ball. In the first half, a couple of issues on his side, guys got 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 crashed into the back of the net, he trotted to the left side of the goal, did a back somersault and landed right on top of the studs.

For fun, at the urging of a good friend, he 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, scoring goals.”

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