Welcome back to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal,, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
There is a belief, a somewhat logical belief, among American soccer fans that the English second-division frankly ain’t shit. It is not the top level of the pyramid after all, clubs do not get to take part in continental competition, and there are way too many teams. When it comes time to score an American’s transfer to a European club, the International League Prestige Simulator tends to favor, say, Reggie Cannon playing for the worst team in Portugal over Duane Holmes steady working for Huddersfield Town.
I am here today to tell you this is bunk. The Championship is no farm league. Second-tier clubs often smoke EPL teams in cup competition, and the last few waves of freshly promoted sides have more than held their own against their galactically wealthy foes. The English soccer pyramid is such that second-division clubs have just as much support as many of their larger counterparts and can comfortably compete given a Premier League cash infusion, or, hell, win the league two years after promotion. Leeds finished within two damn points of Arsenal last year and had one of the best midfielders in the league. Championship players command legit transfer fees and do cool stuff once they move up to better leagues. It’s good soccer, certainly better than MLS.
All of which is to say, there is no reason to freak out about Antonee Robinson playing a season in the Championship with Fulham.
Who Does He Play For?
Like it says right up in the intro, Robinson plays for Fulham. He came up through the Everton youth system, though he never cracked the first team. Since then, he spent three years in the Championship—one with Bolton, two with Wigan—where he distinguished himself as one of the best young left backs in the league. After an excellent 2019 season, Robinson was highly coveted, and he was basically all set to transfer to AC Milan for $13 million when a medical test revealed a slight heart condition. Because AC Milan left the transfer process so late in the window, he couldn’t undergo more tests in time for the move to be completed, so he went back to Wigan (who sucked mondo ass) before moving up the Premier League with Fulham last season.
Robinson played in 28 Premier League games for Fulham last year, and played well whenever I watched, but because he was yet again bound to a crappy team, he spent most of his time frantically defending and not doing any of the cool forward-moving stuff he did in a USMNT jersey. He’d often play alongside fellow American Tim Ream, and while Fulham’s defense wasn’t relegation-worthy on its own terms, their attack managed the second-fewest goals in the league (less than one per match) so they dropped back down to the Championship. Rumors abounded this summer of a move to Manchester City to play for future USMNT boss Pep Guardiola, though they went nowhere.
Two Americans on City would have been cool, and Guardiola would have found a way to make use, even if as a backup, for a player of Robinson’s quality. But USMNT fans should be happy that Robinson now gets to play on one of the best teams in the Championship, a team so good he can finally do more than defend his own box for the majority of the game. He clearly has the pedigree to play for a great team, and from a U.S. perspective, that matters more than where he’s playing at the moment. Fulham are currently top of the table with a plus-seven goal differential through four games. He’s got a goal and an assist already this year. It turns out you can have fun and do more cool stuff when your team isn’t overmatched.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
(This is borderline, since Robinson never actually played for Milan, but fans did seem excited about him.)
How Does He Play?
Here’s why Robinson in particular benefits from his current club situation: he loves to get forward from the left fullback slot, and he’s real damn good at it. During his last spell in the Championship, Robinson graded out as one of the most prolific and accurate crossers at his position, as well as one of the most effective runners. His directness is his greatest asset, and for a team that wants to play balls up the field quickly and fly up the wings, Robinson is the exact sort of left back you want.
What made him such a confusing potential fit with Manchester City is his relatively weaker technical skill on the ball. He’s more of a runner and an incisive crosser than a creative fullback in the interior, which doesn’t mean he’s, like, bad, it just means he’s a true fullback and not a converted midfielder. He doesn’t really have to break defenders down with his dribble to produce value. Defensively, he’s a pretty complete player, with the strength and speed to chase down long balls and press opponents, the skill to win balls back and force bad passes, and the brain to stay in the right spot out on the flank.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Robinson is 24, and he plays one of the least glamorous positions on the pitch for a team called the Cottagers. Not exactly glitzy, or, well, teen-aged. This is not to say he’s not a cool guy who can do cool stuff, so we’re giving him 3 out of 8 on the Wonderteen Index.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
You’re god damned right he can! But you do not want to play the position against him:
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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Quite well. The team is overstuffed with fullbacks, but Robinson is one of the few who is a natural left back. If the team is going to play Christian Pulisic out on the left wing, Robinson is the perfect fit behind him. He’s more than able to cover for them, and he’s liable to spring them up the flank with a nice pass. Pulisic also likes to drift into the middle, which would make space for Robinson to get into position in his most dangerous zone. Gregg Berhalter is still figuring out his go-to formations, and Robinson found himself on the bench for the USMNT’s epic Nations League win against Mexico when Berhalter played a bizarre 5-2-3 formation.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
If Berhalter plays anything normal, Robinson is the guy. George Bello is on the roster for the upcoming trio of World Cup qualifiers and Sam Vines is legit and cool, but Robinson is clearly the best left back in the pool. Get him out there!