The emergence of Brenden Aaronson and Miles Robinson
Through Jason davis – WASHINGTON, DC (December 24, 2021) American Soccer Players – A new year is on the horizon, and everyone knows what it means. It’s time for predictions. A new year brings new possibilities, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to wonder what the next 12 months will bring. In football, 2022 is a World Cup year. We have to wait more than 11 months for the tournament to arrive, but the vision of the greatest sporting event on Earth appearing in the distance is enough to make people think about what is to come.
USMNT will enter 2022 in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign. The break in the schedule before six remaining games split between a window in late January / early February and one in March eases speculation. Will the Americans be qualified? Who will be the key characters in these six remaining matches? Can they not only secure a place in Qatar, but finish at the top of the qualifying table?
The revised qualifying schedule makes the likelihood of big changes within the player pool unlikely. Head Coach Gregg Berhalter will manage the talent available due to player paces in and out of season. Barring extreme disruption, we’re unlikely to see any fundamental changes in the squad that earned USMNT 15 points in eight games.
Even without big changes, Berhalter may have to look to a few players who weren’t big on the 2021 qualifying calendar. Predicting who those players might be is an interesting challenge. There are a few weak spots in the depth table thanks to injuries, and the three-game windows make rotation a necessity.
Choosing which players will rise to prominence in 2021 is based on evidence from the past four months. At the start of 2021, it was much more difficult to know which of the young groups of emerging stars would not only join the USMNT team but become critical by the end of the year.
Two names stand out: Brendan Aaronson and Miles Robinson.
Circumstances helped propel both players into the international spotlight sooner than expected. While each had the makings of a future contributor, their country’s career boom was less predictable.
Aaronson’s year began with his first appearance in the Austrian Bundesliga following a transfer from the Union from Philadelphia to Red Bull Salzburg. It only took a few weeks for the New Jersey native to score his first goal, a game-winner against Austria Vienna.
Around the same time last year, Aaronson had just two USMNT caps, both in friendlies. Aaronson scored his first international goal in a 6-0 loss to El Salvador in early December. A few weeks later, he arrived in Europe to watch the USMNT, but he had yet to jump into the plans of the first team.
This remained the situation for two thirds of the year. Aaronson has made three friendlies in three months and added two more goals to his tally while remaining the second choice for several other of his European-based teammates. In the Nations League, the USMNT beat Honduras and Mexico in early June with Aaronson an unused substitute in both games.
Aaronson was at the scene, part of the team, and looked likely to stay in the photo. Nothing more could be said about his outlook heading into the qualifying phase of the calendar. Then the winds changed, dramatically. A series of injuries and absences saw Aaronson claim a spot in the offensive rotation. Without Giovanni Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah and others, the USMNT needed a fit attacking player to strengthen themselves.
This situation created the opportunity for Aaronson. He started the opening qualifying game against El Salvador in San Salvador and has gone on to appear in all Concacaf qualifiers to date. Berhalter used Aaronson in his first eleven in all but two of those games, one of them the away game for Honduras when Aaronson came in at halftime and scored in a win of return.
If and when the United States returns to full force in the advanced roster areas, Aaronson can serve as both a trusted starter and a weapon on the bench. In a crash where Berhalter had to rework his team, Aaronson’s relentless drive and growing confidence played a big part. He is in excellent form in Austria where he is now a regular holder of a top club. Red Bull also qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
What Aaronson did up front, defenseman Miles Robinson did in the back. The Atlanta United center-back went from “USMNT prospect” to one of the first names on the roster in qualifying. Robinson’s rise came mainly through the Gold Cup.
Berhalter’s choice to bring in a predominantly MLS-based squad loaded with potential but lacking the star power of the Nations League group. It paid off when the Americans beat Mexico in the final and won the trophy. The experience allowed Berhalter to see his young players playing under pressure in a tournament situation.
Robinson played every minute of the Gold Cup, including 120 minutes against Mexico in the final. The 24-year-old was hardly wrong despite the workload. His incisive passes had already impressed before his 117th-minute goal against Mexico gave the Americans the title.
That consistency earned Robinson a starting position in the middle of the defensive line early in qualifying. Personnel issues in other areas of the field stubbornly persisted Berhalter, but he never turned away from Robinson. The former Syracuse man has started six of eight USMNT qualifiers and has locked his role for 2022.
At the start of 2021, Aaronson and Robinson had not proven themselves on the international scene. Despite their obvious talent, it was not clear whether they would be on the pitch more than a handful of times in the New Year.
Thanks to fortuitous timing and an open schedule to give unconfirmed young players a chance, the pair not only played, but thrived as well. Each claimed regular departures and regular minutes.
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Photo by John Todd – ISIPhotos.com