The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed many things from many people, among those being time. It had been 21 months between Jalen Robinson’s last game with D.C. United (an August 2019 loss to the New York Red Bulls) and his first game with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds (a May 2021 loss to the Charlotte Independence). Following a 2021 season where he appeared in 18 games (starting 11) and not having his contract renewed with Pittsburgh, he found a familiar voice from college wanting to see if he’s be up for reuniting.
“It was a weird year last year for me,” Robinson said. “And I know I wanted to play a specific brand (of soccer) that I know I’m good at, one that I could express myself (in). Seeing what these guys did to us last year, the four times we played them, I couldn’t imagine not coming back and at least get back to who I was before. When I left DC, the COVID year, just to get back on my feet getting back to playing getting back to being confident again, I couldn’t be happier, and couldn’t ask for anyone better to play for Tino (Coach Ryan Martin). You know, I owe a lot and I told him that. I’m very thankful to be back.”
Martin has known Robinson since recruiting him in 2012, and thought adding him onto the squad (next to his former Demon Deacon teammate Michael Gamble) was a no-brainer, inviting him to trial before signing him in May. “We were always texting back and forth, and we stayed in contact through his time here and then Pittsburgh and elsewhere. I always was like, ‘I’d love a chance to work with you.’ I didn’t know if he wanted to come back and not be in the first-team environment when he comes back to D.C. United, but we had a great conversation and he was like, ‘No I’ll be a mentor, I’ll be a leader. I’ll help you be a coach on the field.’ Which for me, was a tremendous thing at that point because we just lost Fred (Brillant) to the first team. So I lost my assistant and we were trying to bring Mattar (M’Boge, Gambian National Youth Team coach who joined the staff in July) in, so to have Jalen come in and really help me in that moment was great. He’s been a tremendous leader for the young guys, been a great locker room presence. His consistency has been great, which is, a great role model for these young guys, which they really need because it is teaching, how do you become a pro is what we’re really trying to do.”
During the midst of a late July loss on the road, it was noted that Robinson was the oldest player on the field at one point for Loudoun, at the ripe age of 28, leading the team as captain. When this was mentioned to Robinson he joked, “That’s every game without Gamble here! We laugh all the time because he’s like ‘You’re only younger than me by five months!’ and I’m like ‘Hey, I’m still younger than you.’”
He continued: “At first it was like ‘Okay, I’m in a new role now.’ You have to take that. Like, what am I going to do with it? I remember having my rookie year. Some of the guys I had (were) Bobby Boswell, Davy Arnaud, Chris Rolfe, Patrick Nyarko, Fabian Espindola, Eddie Johnson, you know, all those guys are there. I remember taking in things they were trying to tell me, the advice they were telling me certain things to help me out, to help my game. I remember the words that they told me how they made me more competitive and how they made me want to win more. And I was like, ‘It would do a dishonor if the things they told me, I didn’t pass down or at least try and pass down. So (Loudoun’s player) at least consider it in the future because you know, football goes by quick man. It goes by quick and before you know it, you’ll be knocking on the doorstep where you’re thinking about what’s next, or how much longer you have. But I always tell Tino (that) whatever I can do to help mentor the young guys, anyone who just looking for advice or whatever, I can help I try give it my all to give them the right advice (even) I still don’t have it perfect for myself.”
Robinson was also the captain days later when homegrown signing Kristian Fletcher scored twice on his 17th birthday for Loudoun, and after the game Fletcher, along with his teammate and then-future homegrown signing Matai Akinmboni (15 years old) and current homegrown signing Jacob Greene (19) were making a celebratory TikTok. “Trust me, I (felt) like an old head when I first came here,” Robinson said after the game. “I see all these guys do TikToks, I remember when we had Vine. But it keeps me young, with all these little tortilla slap fights and all the new trends, I just try to keep up with them.”
Robinson signed with D.C. United on a homegrown contract at 19 (and before that could be spotted on the auxiliary fields of RFK when he was in high school) is aware of the changing infrastructure that the current crop of kids has and the difference in things now is evident.
“This is way better, this is sweet for them, you know? I always tell them this is sweet. We had to drive to Richmond, and even Richmond didn’t have to play you. But (now) you know, they’re right down the road, you literally see them from right here. For me, you know we would get a text message, me, Collin Martin, Conor Shanosky, and Michael Seaton, we would get a text message as a group saying, ‘Hey, just go down to Richmond, we’ll see you next week.’ You know, just, it’s just done so differently. We would train with the first team in 2015, but it’s just so different now. They just have it way easier and even so, I look back and I know they’ve gone through coaching changes, but now they’re in a system where the younger guys are getting played. I mean, they’re playing all the time, look at Matai, and they’ll maybe give Gavin (Turner) a run with the first team. The Jackson’s, the Ku’s, I’m hoping that Jeremy and Greenie get a chance, but they’re giving all these young guys chances that we didn’t get. I send Collin Martin text messages all the time, (saying) they don’t really talk about all the other people that paved the way for these new guys that come in. We really didn’t get the chance that we wish we could have gotten. It’s tough but I’m rooting for each and every one of the guys that get that chance.”
“I feel better than ever, playing again, playing 90, being the Captain, it does things, and makes you confident,” Robinson continued. “The growth that (the Academy players) make is noticeable. And you love to see that and for me personally, watching them grow helps me continue to grow as a player because you never want to become stagnant. I’m still continuing to learn, I still make mistakes as coaches harped on me today (in practice), and in the game, I still make mistakes and I’ll own up to it. That’s how we grow and I feel like I’m playing some of my best football that I’ve haven’t played or haven’t been able to showcase with DC and to the fans, and I want them to know, I still have it, I still got it. I feel like I’ve just entered my prime. I feel like I’m just getting started showing my best football.”