It’s appeared to be a lost cause at times, and it doesn’t look great at the moment. But maybe there’s some hope for 2020. If in doubt, ask Antonee Robinson, whose year started out, fittingly, with a medical scare that appeared to cost him the professional opportunity of a lifetime.
It was January. The full onset of the coronavirus pandemic was still a few weeks away, a new decade was dawning and there was limitless possibility. Thanks to a solid performance during a couple U.S. U-23 national team matches in Spain last November, Robinson had captured the interest of scouts from AC Milan. Consequently, toward the end of the winter transfer window, a 22-year-old Wigan Athletic defender who had never played top-tier professional football somehow was on his way to Italy to join the seven-time European champions.
Then he failed his medical exam because of his body’s sensitivity to caffeine.
That’s right. The irregular heart rhythm detected by Milan doctors that scuttled Robinson’s transfer wasn’t the result of some urgent, congenital issue. It likely was the product of energy drinks and coffee. Robinson, Milan and Wigan didn’t know that at the time, so he was scheduled for a surgical procedure designed to fix the defect. Then during a delay caused by the pandemic’s onset, as Robinson feared his career might hang in the balance, his heart corrected itself. So in June, as leagues resumed around Europe, Robinson was back on the field—wearing Wigan blue and white instead of Milan rossoneri.
His focus was on helping Wigan avoid the drop to League One, and his form was testament to that focus. But it’s easy to imagine that in between matches—once he got used to the idea that his health and career were on solid footing—Robinson might shake his fist at the soccer gods, furious that something so trivial left him mired in a relegation battle in northwest England instead of racing up and down the left flank at the sunny San Siro.
Except he wasn’t bitter. A realization cut through the disappointment.
“I don’t feel like I missed out on anything to be honest. It would’ve been a massive opportunity, but when I think back now, I just had six months at Wigan and a giant club came in for me. Realistically, I would’ve gone out there and I would’ve been sitting on the bench,” Robinson told Sports Illustrated. “Looking back on it now, I definitely wouldn’t have been happy to go out there and not be playing, especially when it wasn’t the manager who brought me. The manager [Stefano Pioli] could’ve taken one look at me and not liked me.
“At the time, I was devastated,” he continued. “But after the restart and playing games again and feeling confidence in myself, it was worth seeing who else was interested. Playing in the Premier League was always a dream of mine, so it’s good to see how things worked out in the end.”
Robinson wasn’t sure he’d truly be wanted at Milan. And another chance to showcase his wares in the Championship offered the opportunity to reset and perhaps find a more certain situation. Wigan didn’t survive. Although the Latics went 5-1-3 after the restart (Robinson started all nine games), a 12-point deduction imposed because the club entered administration doomed it to relegation. His play, however, ensured Robinson wouldn’t be following the club to League One. His boyhood club, Everton, was interested at one point. Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United and Sheffield United also kicked the tires. But there was one suitor that stood out, and it did so for all the reasons that Robinson eventually developed misgivings about Milan.
Different athletes are motivated by different things. Michael Jordan saying “It became personal” has become a meme. For Robinson, it isn’t slights or conflict that draws the best out of him. It’s feeling wanted. He’s inspired by a club and coach who have confidence in him. This summer, that club was Fulham, a Championship rival of Wigan that was heading up instead of down. And that coach was Scott Parker.
“When I spoke to Parker it sounded like he was desperate to get me. In January, they wanted me as well, but because Milan were in they didn’t bother,” Robinson recalled. “He just sounded really excited to try to get me in. I’ve always wanted to go somewhere where I was wanted by the manager. The way he made everything sound, he thought I’d get better as a player, I’d develop and he had high expectations for me.”
After speaking with Parker, Robinson called the one Fulham player he knew—Tim Ream. They’d crossed paths with the U.S. national team during the summer of 2019.
“If he thought it was a bad idea, he wouldn’t have told me to come,” Robinson said of Ream. “But all the things Scott said about development, the style of play, Tim essentially repeated all of that. It sounded like he was in the room with Scott reading the things he’d just said. It was scary how good Tim made it sound.”
Speaking to U.S. reporters on a conference call last month, Ream said, “Both times we played them this year, our guys have come off saying, ‘What a player.’ As long as he continues to develop in that same vein, it can only mean big things. … For him to come to Fulham would be great.”
On Aug. 20, Robinson signed a four-year deal with the Cottagers. At last, he was a top-tier player. And the Fulhamerica tradition was strengthened.
Robinson has become fully aware of the fascinating, historic ties between the West London club and American soccer only recently. He said he enjoyed watching Clint Dempsey, but he hadn’t always realized that Dempsey was following in the footsteps of Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, Kasey Keller, Eddie Lewis, Eddie Johnson, Marcus Hahnemann and more, and that he was part of a lineage that included academy kids, Ream and younger countrymen like Emerson Hyndman. Signing Americans isn’t Fulham policy—Robinson called it a “cool coincidence”—and the trend began well before U.S. businessman Shahid Khan acquired the club in 2013. But the bonds are unmistakable, and they strengthen Robinson’s ties to a fun piece of U.S. soccer tradition just as he’s looking to make his mark with the senior team.
It makes for a cool story, because Robinson’s ties to American soccer are unique, and he’s eager to firm them up. He’s not the first USA international to be born and raised in Europe as the son of an American. But what’s a bit different about Robinson’s story is that his father wasn’t born in the U.S. either. Marlon Robinson is from England as well but moved to White Plains, N.Y., as a teenager to live with his Jamaican mother. He played soccer for Duke University then returned to Liverpool, where Antonee and his siblings grew up. Marlon was in the U.S. for about a decade. But that was enough time to secure citizenship, and eventually he was able to pass that passport on to his children.
Antonee remembers taking a couple trips to the U.S., and he said his older brother and sister have laughed about the fact that when he was around 6 or 7, he adopted a “faux American accent” because he was “watching too much Disney Channel at the time.” Otherwise, his citizenship was mostly a piece of trivia. He noted his American eligibility when signing his scholarship papers at Everton, and didn’t give it much more thought until the U.S. Soccer Federation reached out.
“I hadn’t really developed. I was quite small, didn’t play a lot. I had trouble with my knees. I wasn’t one of the kids they were thinking was going to go and be a Premier League player. I was just there. I don’t really think they had very high hopes for me,” Robinson said of his academy days at Everton.
“Then I got the call-up from the U.S. under-18 team. That was the first time I felt like someone had hopes for me, that I could be a good player. And it’s the reason I wanted to play for the U.S. over England [once the FA showed interest],” he continued. “That the U.S. would give me a chance and believed in me. That gave me a lot of confidence.”
There it is again—the inspiring power of feeling wanted. The mind trick for the player nicknamed “Jedi” is real. Robinson was capped just once by the U-18s, but it reinvigorated him at Everton, where he was the club’s U-18 player of the season in 2014-15. Knee issues sidelined him for most of the following term, however, and in the summer of 2017 he was loaned to Bolton Wanderers. In 2018, he got his first taste of senior international soccer, as USA interim manager Dave Sarachan fielded Robinson in six friendlies—among them the 1-1 draw with soon-to-be world champion France in Paris.
“Just being able to cope in games like that—that was [after] my first season in men’s professional football with Bolton. Going from a first season in the Championship to playing against France and ending up drawing, we coped really well in the game, and it was just a real eye-opener that we could have the makings of a really good team,” Robinson said.
Like anyone who follows U.S. soccer, Robinson can rattle off the names of the rising young stars and the big clubs for which they play. He sees trophies in the team’s future, and desperately wants to be a part of winning them. But he knows it’s not a given, and that a manager’s faith has to be earned. His international career hit a speed bump last summer. Sarachan was gone, Gregg Berhalter was in place, and after he struggled as a wingback—an unfamiliar role—in a friendly loss to Jamaica, Robinson was cut from the Concacaf Gold Cup team. He hasn’t played for the senior side since.
“It was the first time I worked under Gregg. It was interesting getting used to his coaching style, because it was a lot more depth and detailed,” Robinson said.
A November call-up to the U-23s reminded Robinson that he was still in the program’s plans. McBride, the Fulham legend, cemented that fact this spring when, in his new role as national team GM, he checked in with Robinson following his health scare. Robinson’s appeal isn’t just a function of his obvious technique and speed, and the way he’s adapted and then flourished with each step in his career. It also has a lot to do with his position. He offers what the USA needs: a left back. The player pool is so thin at that spot, in fact, that Ream—a central defender—started there nine times last year.
“In my first camp, Dave Sarachan was like, ‘There’s not a lot of people at your position in the team.’ I’ve known for a while,” Robinson said. “It’s been sticking with me, that over time I could really cement my place being the starting left back for the U.S. That’s pretty much what I’m aspiring to.”
Even if he hasn’t earned it yet—even if not wanted desperately—he knows full well that Berhalter, McBride and a significant chunk of U.S. soccer are rooting for him. That’s enough for now. And Robinson has started preparing for the Premier League season with Fulham knowing that Berhalter is watching closely. In fact, the coach called Robinson while the player was on vacation in Italy this summer.
“He said, ‘We’ve seen your games after the restart and thought you did really well,’” Robinson said. “He had details from different matches. They clearly watched how I got on since the heart scare, and he just said he thought I’d done really well and that at the next opportunity, that I will get another chance to get called up and stake my place.
“So he has shown a bit of faith in me.”
After a brutal start, there’s now something to look forward to as 2020 finally hits the home stretch. Robinson is healthy and said his first week of training with Fulham went well. The season kicks off Saturday against Arsenal. And there’s a chance the USA might finally take the field this fall. The October window likely comes too soon to get games scheduled, but November friendlies in Europe remain a possibility. That would represent Robinson’s chance.
Berhalter is watching and waiting.
“For the national team [Robinson’s move to Fulham] is great news,” Berhalter said recently. “When you think about that left back spot being open and contested, it’s a good opportunity for Antonee to prove he wants to and he’s capable of being the left back for the national team."
Said Robinson: “I want to prove that I’m ready and that I want to play for the U.S., and I want to take us to win things.
"You can never tell what’s going to happen. But I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I’m looking forward to the start of the season and the challenge that’s going to come with the Premier League. This season is going to be massive for me, for my development, and I feel every season I’ve played men’s football I’ve gotten better. So to start this season off the back of that, knowing I’ve got to step up a gear to meet this greater challenge, is just going to make me better.”