ATLANTA — Gerardo “Tata” Martino rarely minces words, even when speaking through an interpreter. The Atlanta United FC manager doesn’t state opinions he doesn’t totally believe in. To garner his praises, a player has to really impress him.
So, all the media gathered in his postgame press conference inside a small room on the field level of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday took note when Martino offered an assessment of how Miles Robinson played in Atlanta’s 3-1 series-sealing win over New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs.
“Miles was one of our best players tonight,” Martino said through a translator.
Robinson started and played the entirety of Atlanta’s win, its first home playoff victory as a club. That Robinson started and played well enough to earn the applause of his head coach is another milestone the young defender has met in his sophomore campaign.
“Obviously, I was very happy (to get the starting nod), and I knew if I just played like Jeff (Larentowicz) played the game before, I think we’d come out with a good result,” Robinson said. “And that happened, so, I’m happy.”
The 21-year-old Syracuse product was the club’s first-ever pick in the MLS SuperDraft, taken second overall in 2017. But in his rookie season, he never saw the field in a regular season MLS game.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s second pick in that draft, Julian Gressel, went on to be named as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Gressel has continued to progress in his second year as a pro — becoming a versatile weapon and one of the team’s top assisters — but Robinson has improved too. He isn’t a must-start for Martino in every contest like Gressel is, but Robinson has played well enough in the chances given to him that he has earned the trust of Martino.
After the first leg of the conference semifinals against NYCFC, veteran defender Larentowicz suffered what Martino called a “muscle injury.” With Larentowicz out, Martino had a few options. He could’ve called on Kevin Kratz to start in the midfield. He could have adjusted his formation to add more attacking power and started Hector “Tito” Villalba, Ezequiel Barco or Andrew Carleton up top. He could have also inserted young left back George Bello into the lineup.
Instead, Martino turned to Robinson.
“He defended well, which was his main job tonight,” Martino said of Robinson. “He did a few things that we practiced throughout the week. He did those very well, and I would maybe go as far to say that he was one of our three best players tonight.”
It’s unclear exactly how reliable the Audi Player Index tool is on the league’s website, but the system ranked Robinson as the fifth best player on the pitch Sunday, trailing only Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Maxime Chanot and Franco Escobar.
Along with the algorithm, Robinson’s teammates were also impressed with his play. Without being asked by reporters, Michael Parkhurst, Gressel and Almiron complimented the defender for his work when speaking to the media.
“Miles stepped in and played a fantastic game,” Parkhurst said.
“Miles did a tremendous job replacing (Larentowicz),” Gressel said. “He played an excellent game.”
“A lot of guys have stepped up, and I want to highlight Miles for tonight’s performance,” Almiron said through a translator. “I say it was like a debut for him because he hasn’t been playing in a while, and it was a big match, and he stepped in and did really well.”
Robinson said he found out a few days before the match that he would be getting the start, but he’s been preparing for this stage for months.
While the 6-foot-2 Arlington, Mass., native played in 10 matches with Atlanta United this season — starting in three of those — he stayed fit and continued his development down the stretch of the season by playing with the club’s USL affiliate, ATL UTD 2. Robinson started and played in 14 matches with the lower-level Five Stripes and tallied up 82 clearances, 11 blocks, 20 interceptions, 68 duels won, 25 tackles, 718 successful passes and one goal. Robinson said playing with the second-tier team was beneficial and rewarding.
“To have games where you can stay fit, stay sharp and stay ready for moments like this,” he said
Robinson said he also benefited from being included in the 18-man roster for the first leg of the semifinals, a road game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He didn’t play in that match, but watched closely from the sidelines and studied how David Villa and Maxi Moralez were attacking the Five Stripes. Of Robinson’s three tackles on Sunday, one of them came against Villa in the first half.
“It’s always beneficial to see how (NYCFC) plays, at least for a game earlier,” Robinson said. “I thought I played pretty well and I thought the team had a great game.”
In the victory, Robinson also tallied three interceptions and two clearances, and he was 71 percent successful on 24 passes. He committed one foul, but it was a necessary one that broke up an NYCFC counterattack late in the game.
Atlanta did give up one goal to NYCFC, but it wasn’t Robinson’s fault. The ball came in off a free kick and Chanot slipped past Escobar to tap the ball past Brad Guzan. Aside from that, NYCFC had nine other shot attempts, but just three landed on-target. Five of them were blocked by the Atlanta defense.
“When you have a good team like NYCFC looking for a goal, we obviously were going to be defending for long bits at a time,” Robinson said. “We did that very well. We were organized and played well tonight. It’s a little bit mental, but just as mental as it is physical. We handled it well.”
Atlanta moves on to the conference semifinals now, and while the Five Stripes are mostly healthy in the attack and midfield, they are without some depth defensively. It’s unclear how long Larentowicz will be out, and Chris McCann, Mikey Ambrose and Sal Zizzo are still recovering from leg injuries.
One thing Robinson proved in Atlanta’s win over NYCFC is that Martino and his teammates can count on him if he’s needed.
“If you can pick out one player, I think Miles — whose last start was in May — comes on and mans up against one of the best forwards in the league,” teammate Greg Garza said. “I’m very happy for him. In playoffs, you need as deep of a team as you can get.”