Fulhamerica is alive and well.
Antonee Robinson secured a transfer from Wigan Athletic to recently promoted Premier League club Fulham on Thursday, joining a long line of Americans to play for the London-based team–and, reading into comments made Wednesday by U.S. men's coach Gregg Berhalter, giving himself a prime opportunity to lock down a regular place with the national team.
Robinson, an English-born, attack-minded left back, will be the 11th U.S. international to play for Fulham, following in the footsteps of Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Kasey Keller, Eddie Lewis, Marcus Hahnemann, Eddie Johnson, Emerson Hyndman, Luca de la Torre and Tim Ream.
De la Torre just left the club for Heracles in the Netherlands top flight, but the 32-year-old Ream remains and is under contract through next season, meaning that the entire left side of Fulham's defense could be American, should manager Scott Parker choose. The 23-year-old Robinson has signed through 2024, securing the transfer (for an undisclosed fee but reported to be a modest $2.5 million) to cap an eight-month period that might be too implausible for even the greatest of script writers.
Robinson had appeared to be on his way to AC Milan at the end of the January transfer window, with a shocking deadline move to the Italian power taking shape. It fell apart at the last minute, though, with a physical revealing a heart condition. There wasn't enough time for the necessary follow-ups and treatment, so he remained at Wigan while the problem was corrected. Upon his return to the field, he played at a high level, helping Wigan surge to the finish line–only for off-field woes to penalize the club and doom it to relegation to League One. A favorite at Wigan, he has now escaped that situation for a far more promising one.
“I heard a few days ago that Scott Parker was interested in me and wanted to speak to me personally," Robinson said in a Fulham statement. "We had a Zoom call and he was really keen to get the deal done and for me to be a Fulham player. Fulham play a really nice style of football and I can see myself fitting in perfectly. As soon as I heard of the ambitions of the club it was an easy decision for me.”
The decision is tantalizing for Berhalter, who, like his predecessors, has been in search of a stable solution at left back. Ream and Daniel Lovitz have featured there most prominently, while Sergiño Dest, whose strengths reside on the right, can and has filled in there as well. Regardless, there's an opening for someone to seize.
"For the national team, [the transfer is] great news," Berhalter said Wednesday, after addressing the release of the USA's 2022 World Cup qualifying schedule. "When you think about that left back spot being open and being contested, it’s a good opportunity for Antonee to prove ... he’s capable of being the left back for the national team.”
Berhalter characterized Robinson's transfer as "exciting" and the player as a "dangerous weapon" and that's proven to be true at the club level for Wigan and against U.S. opponents that the Americans are expected to beat. It's been the top-tier international competition against whom Robinson has struggled in the past, but those growing pains come with the territory. He's young with room for improvement, and being tested weekly in the Premier League is surely a platform where that can transpire. If he starts right away, he'll be tested immediately, with Fulham opening its season vs. Arsenal on Sept. 12.
"Both times we played him this year, our guys have come off the field saying, 'What a player,'" Ream, who faced Robinson in England's second tier, said Wednesday. "Obviously a move to Milan ... would have been huge, but things happen. Another American at the club, and someone who can attack out of that left fullback role, and that can only translate into his role with the national team and being that attacking left fullback for the U.S.”
Robinson may not be the only U.S. figure on the way to the Premier League this transfer window. Midfielder Weston McKennie has been linked to a number of English clubs, most notably Southampton, after a proposed move to Hertha Berlin from Schalke fell through. Schalke, which has been transparent about the financial struggles it is currently enduring and how it has reeled in its ambitions for the next few years, is inclined to sell, making a transfer materializing seem more likely than not.
"Weston is very focused on raising his level," Berhalter said. "When you think about the Premier League, it’s the best league in the world. It’s exciting. We wish him the best and hope [a transfer is] concluded sooner rather than later."
Zack Steffen, the presumed starting goalkeeper for the U.S., is currently back with Manchester City after spending last season on loan in the Bundesliga with Fortuna Dusseldorf. Should he not go on loan again, Steffen would figure to be Ederson's backup with Chilean veteran Claudio Bravo leaving the club. When asked whether a lack of first-team playing time for Steffen, who missed the latter part of Dusseldorf's season with a knee injury and is still working his way back, would be problematic considering the important international games on the docket, Berhalter didn't seem too troubled.
“I don’t know those two things to be true," he said. "I’m not sure that he’s definitely going back to Man City and I don’t know that if he went to Man City he wouldn’t be playing. All I can say is they’ve been working hard with Zack to get him right and he’s looking forward to having a strong year wherever he’s playing.”