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Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson improving with USL opportunities

LAWRENCVILLE, Ga. — During most of the opportunities he’s been given this season, Miles Robinson has played well for Atlanta United F.C. and its USL affiliate, ATL UTD 2.

In May, Five Stripes manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino praised the second-year defender out of Syracuse for his superb play in Atlanta’s 2-1 win at Orlando. The former No. 2 SuperDraft Pick has had a few highs this season and it’s clear that he’s made strides in his game.

But he’s also had a handful of lows, too.

“If we’re calling a spade a spade, Louisville wasn’t his strongest game,” ATL 2 head coach Scott Donnelly said. “That’s not to criticize him, it’s just part of his continued development and growth. So, after that game, we did challenge him a little bit to raise [his play] a level.”

The contest Donnelly speaks of was on Sept. 29, a 4-1 home defeat for ATL 2 at the hands of Louisville. But two of Louisville’s scores were own-goals by ATL 2. Robinson was part of a defensive unit that played poorly, allowing Louisville to control 57 percent of possessions and get off 28 shots. Robinson didn’t register a tackle, conceded a foul and missed his target on 15 passes.

But Robinson accepted that demand from Donnelly and had one of his best performances of the season, in MLS or USL, just four days later.

Not only was he part of a back line that fought off a tough and talented Tampa Bay team eager for goals on Oct. 3, but his left foot provided an equalizer in the waning moments of the game to give ATL 2 a draw with the Rowdies.

“He was better with the ball at his feet. In duels he was very good,” Donnelly said. “Then, to pop up and get his first goal for us, I mean, that’s huge. … He was very good in both boxes.”

The goal came off a free kick from Andrew Carleton, who lofted the ball into the box with his right foot in the 92nd minute. It bounced around a few players and settled behind Robinson, who spun around and quickly slotted a shot between the posts. It was the first professional goal of the season for Robinson, who has appeared in 13 USL games and 10 MLS games this season.

“It was just a good ball in the box from Andrew and AJ (Cochran) kind of half won the ball and it fell to me and I was lucky enough to put in the back of the net,” Robinson said.

Ahead of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Robinson was heralded as a talented but raw defender coming out of Syracuse, but scouts also highlighted the 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year’s work as a scoring threat on set pieces. Over 42 appearances for the Orange, Robinson found the back of the net nine times.

In 28 games as a professional, he’s scored just twice. Atlanta United’s staff hopes that Wednesday’s goal is a sign of things to come for the 21-year-old defender, who could be a weapon on corner and free kicks.

“He’s a major threat in the box on attacking set pieces,” Donnelly said. “I’m actually really surprised that we’ve waited until our 31st game for him to get a goal.”

Robinson finished the USL contest against Tampa Bay with three tackles and an 82 percent accuracy on 40 passes. He followed up Wednesday’s contest with another strong performance for ATL 2 on Sunday, notching two tackles, conceding zero fouls and completing 91 percent of his 45 passes in a 2-1 win for the minor league Five Stripes over the Charleston Battery.

During his 12 starts for ATL 2 this season, he’s tallied 21 interceptions, 10 blocks, 76 clearances and a 64 percent success rate on duels.

Cochran, a 25-year-old defender for ATL 2 who also occasionally serves as the team’s captain, often comes away impressed by Robinson’s performances whenever he plays alongside him.

“I think he has improved a lot. He is a physical specimen. He is extremely fast, really good in the air and he’s still young,” Cochran said. “Every time he steps onto the field, he gets better and better. I love his tenacity and he is just getting better on the ball. I think Miles is a very good player and there are big things still to come from him.”

Robinson never saw the field for Five Stripes in MLS play as a rookie. He was loaned to the USL’s Charleston Battery and played in six games for them in 2017.

But Robinson worked hard in the offseason and earned his way onto an MLS pitch this season. The first start of the 6-foot-2 defender’s career came on April 7, when he played a full 90 minutes at fullback in Atlanta’s 5-0 win over LAFC. He won three aerials, two tackles and had two clearances in an effort that held Carlos Vela and company to zero scores.

The young defender’s debut left veteran Jeff Larentowicz impressed.

“He did exactly what we thought he could do and that we hoped he could do,” Larentowicz said after that game. “(Diego) Rossi was in one-versus-zero and Miles catches up to him. Only since Marvell Wynne did I really see a guy that could track someone down and stop a one versus one with the goalkeeper and Miles has that ability. I thought he was very good in possession.”

Robinson played well in his second start of the season, a 2-1 win for Atlanta in Orlando on May 13. He performed good enough to earn a second straight start, but was part of a defensive effort that gave up three goals to the Red Bulls in a loss for the Five Stripes on May 20.

Then, in a road game in July against FC Dallas, Martino subbed Robinson in to shore up the back line in the 83rd minute to protect a 2-1 lead. But in a critical moment in the game, Robinson left Tesho Akindele unmarked. That mistake, combined with unnecessary pressure from Franco Escobar and miscommunication across the board, led to an equalizer for Dallas. A scrum in the box on a corner kick created the third goal for Dallas after Robinson and his fellow Five Stripes were unable to clear the ball.

But instead of benching Robinson and having him watch from the sidelines, the folks making player personnel decisions for Atlanta United opted to give playing time with ATL 2. This is the benefit for MLS teams who have USL affiliates in their backyard: when a veteran needs to tweak some things, when an injured player needs to come back a bit slower from an injury or when a younger player needs minutes to develop, they can do all of that with the USL team.

“It’s definitely valuable to get that time on the pitch. It’s great to have a second team so you can stay match fit by coming here and playing,” Robinson said. “It’s a good opportunity to stay loose and ready in case your number gets called with the first team. These reps will definitely help me going into big games with the first team.”

One thing Robinson has been trying to sharpen at the USL level is his distribution techniques. He’s completed 649 of 741 passes with ATL 2 this season for an 87 percent success rate. He’s also tallied three key passes.

Robinson showed off his passing skills in a Sept. 8 win for ATL 2 over Penn FC. In the third minute of the game, he fired a long pass down the right side to Jon Gallagaher, who then one-timed a cross into the box, leading to a headed goal for Devon Sandoval.

“In almost all of his performances, Miles has been strong,” Donnelly said. “He is always strong defensively, for the most part he has been good with the ball at his feet. That’s given him confidence to go back be a good option for the first team.”

Robinson’s steady play at the USL level has given him confidence. He believes that if and when Martino calls his number again at the MLS level, he’ll be prepared.

With Atlanta United gearing up for a playoff run, Robinson could be someone Martino calls upon if something were to happen to one of the Five Stripes’ starting defenders.

“I feel like every day I’m improving. It’s just a matter of staying focused and being ready when your name is called upon by the coaching staff,” Robinson said. “I’m continuing to work on my distribution and focus on a complete 90 minutes. I think I’m getting better at (those things) in my second season as a pro.” 

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