Jalen Robinson didn’t get a lot of playing time in 2016. He was on the field for 271 total minutes, which break down as three 90 minute outings and a stoppage time cameo in Houston to add an extra minute. That appearance against the Dynamo marked his MLS debut; previously, Robinson had endured two full seasons without a single minute in league play since signing a homegrown contract in 2014.
However, despite those low numbers, 2016 has to be considered a good year for Robinson. Aside from finally getting into an MLS match, Robinson showed that he’s a more viable option to play games today than previously thought. A week after that league debut, Robinson was excellent in a 2-0 home win over New England that United - facing a four-game road trip - had to have.
On that day, normal starters Steve Birnbaum (injury) and Bobby Boswell (suspension) were unavailable. Kei Kamara - the kind of elite aerial threat that had previously served as an argument against the 5’9" Robinson playing as a center back - was starting for the Revs. And yet, Robinson looked completely at ease, using his anticipation, speed, and balance to routinely beat Kamara to the spot and hold the towering striker off.
Robinson’s performance was strong enough that Ben Olsen appeared to begin looking at him as a center back first and a right back - which is where he had played in several 2014 and 2015 US Open Cup matches - second. While he didn’t have a perfect outing at NYCFC on September 1st, he was as solid as anyone else on the field during the first 75 minutes despite having to deal with David Villa on a regular basis.
The important thing for Robinson in 2016 was proving that he is a truly viable option to start games for United now, not next year or sometime down the road. Robinson closed the gap between him and Kofi Opare to such an extent that plenty of folks (including some staff members here at B&RU) aren’t sure there’s even a gap any more.
I’m not ready to make that leap, but I will say that I view Robinson’s development as real evidence that time spent playing for the Richmond Kickers makes younger players better quickly. Robinson has been a center back just about whenever he’s suited up for the Kickers, and he’s a far better player now than he was when he first signed a pro deal.
This one’s probably pretty easy. Homegrown player showing real signs of progress just as a starter at his position enters his mid-30s? I think we’re on the same page here, but let’s hear your thoughts: