Last week, Antonee Robinson received a phone call that he had waited for since December 20, 2014. That’s when he left his first and only Youth National Team camp: a week-and-a-half stay in Marbella, Spain with the U.S. U-18 Men’s National Team for two friendlies against Germany.
Since then, Robinson has risen through the ranks of the Everton Academy, roared back from a devastating knee injury and rooted himself as a regular starter while on loan at English Championship side Bolton.
“I’ve been waiting for a while to hear back from the National Team since the last time I got called up,” Robinson said. “I was just really excited at that point. They said that they’ve been watching my progress and that they’d been impressed.”
There’s opportunity abound for the entire roster gathered in Cary, N.C. ahead of the MNT’s March friendly against Paraguay on March 27. With an average age of 23 years and 84 days, all 23 players will try to make their claim to be a part of the program’s future. Now back with the USA, Robinson wants to make an impression. He hopes to ensure there won’t be nearly as long a wait for his next call.
“All the young lads are looking to make an impact,” Robinson said. “Obviously, the team’s now looking at the next generation of players, so we’re all looking to take our chance. I think it’s a good opportunity.”
ANSWERING THE CALL
Robinson had settled into bed next to his girlfriend when his phone rang with an unknown U.S. number. On the other end: the call he had waited for.
“I answered and it was Dave Sarachan saying that he was interested in calling me up,” Robinson said. “I pressed mute on my phone so my girlfriend and I could shout to each other how excited we were.”
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HIS FATHER’S OLD STOMPING GROUNDS
Born in Milton Keyes, England, Robinson’s grandmother established the family’s U.S. citizenship by way of her residency in White Plains, N.Y. His father, Marlon, grew up in the Empire State and went on to play collegiate soccer at Duke University. In 1982, he helped the Blue Devils to the NCAA Final and is still an avid fan of the school’s vaunted basketball program.
This week, the MNT will play Paraguay at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, about 20 miles away from the Duke University campus.
THE FORCE IS WITH HIM
Throughout Marlon Robinson’s nearly 20-year coaching career, he made a habit to nickname his young players after the stars they reminded him of.
He started to coach Antonee at age five. When he began to put together the team that his son would play on, he told him that he could pick his own nickname. Antonee chose to forego association with any famous footballer.
“I picked ‘Jedi,’ Robinson said. “I just really liked Star Wars, and it’s stuck since.”
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ANOTHER AMERICAN AT EVERTON
Robinson entered Everton’s academy at age 11 and he rose through the youth ranks to sign his first professional contract with the Toffees at age 17. Goodison Park has been home to several high-profile Americans like Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore and of course, long-time goalkeeper Tim Howard. The two crossed paths for one season in Liverpool, and Robinson joked that Howard didn’t even know he was American.
Strong showings with the Everton youth program not only secured his first pro deal but also earned him a spot on two international tours with the first team in the summer of 2015. But in his senior debut, Robinson suffered a brutal knee injury that required surgery on his cartilage.
After a season of recovery, Robinson picked up where he left off and helped the Everton U-23s to the Premier League 2 title in 2016-17.
His form netted him a new two-year contract extension and earned a loan move to Bolton for his first chance at first-team football.
“At the start I wasn’t really playing, I was more just there to cover for the left back when he got injured,” Robinson said. “I got my chance, played a few games, did alright and then learned more and got myself in the starting lineup. Just playing minutes every week, it’s been really good for me.”
Antonee has excelled this season at Macron Stadium, earning praise from teammates and coaches alike. Now, he’s done enough to catch the eye of the U.S. MNT, where he’s an especially intriguing prospect because of his natural position: left back. In the past, it’s been difficult for the USA to nail down a long-term fixture at the spot, so it’s an opportune location for a new player that hopes to make his mark with the MNT.
“If I was ever going to get called up, it’d be a massive chance,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen a lot of U.S. fans tweeting at me saying ‘We need a left back’. I know it’s up for the taking.
“This is a big country with a bright future. I’m glad I’ve got the chance to make an impression now.”