Nine days ago, Jalen Robinson had the unfortunate distinction of being the only Homegrown Player signing in D.C. United's history to have never appeared to a MLS game. Chris Durkin, who is ineligible to play in MLS this year after signing earlier in the month, notwithstanding, Robinson had that dubious distinction, having never seen playing time in MLS in two and a half years with the club.
But a short substitute appearance in stoppage time against the Houston Dynamo last weekend was bookended by his first MLS start on Saturday night against the New England Revolution, filling in for the suspended Bobby Boswell. And all that Robinson managed to do was to keep last year's leading MLS goal scorer, Kei Kamara, quiet for 90 minutes in the Black-and-Red's 2-0 win.
After the game, teammates and manager alike were full of praise for the 22 year old defender.
"I've seen this kid grow now for quite a while, and as he'll tell you, it hasn't been an easy road for him," manager Ben Olsen said in his post game comments. "For him to get out there and play the way he did tonight against some pretty accomplished forwards in this league is fun. For a coach, it's a lot of fun to see him."
For Robinson himself, it was a complete 90 minute performance. His passing out of the back, especially in the first half when United had a majority of possession, was crisp, and there were several blocked shots, including a crucial one near the end of the first half against the aforementioned Kamara.
By the end of the 90 minutes, you would have been excused for not believing that it was the first time that Robinson had started a game in MLS.
"It was a good 90 minutes for me. I don't mind a performance like that, and it wasn't just me, it was the team," Robinson said after the game. "The team played well to go out and get a [win] at home. You make it a fortress, that's the whole point, to make RFK a fortress, and I think this was a good start to do so."
What might have helped his seamless transition into the team on Saturday night was his previous experience playing alongside Kofi Opare in the center of the back line. Since Opare arrived in the middle of the 2014, the two have played together in CONCACAF Champions League group stage games in 2014 and 2015, and have played alongside each other in the US Open Cup in 2015 and 2016.
That's been the extent of their game experience together, but playing alongside Opare against the Revolution rather than with Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum, who Robinson has no experience with, made that much of a difference.
"I've played with Kofi for two years. I don't think a lot of people realize that," Robinson said. "In Open Cup, and CONCACAF [Champions League], we've played together. So we've been building that relationship over time."
Over the past couple of seasons, in addition to appearing with United in cup competitions, Robinson has spent time in the USL with Arizona United and the Richmond Kickers. That's helped his progression, but he has been limited to just two appearances with the Kickers this year.
In fact, he last appearance with the Kickers was on May 14th, a full month before he went all 120 minutes against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the Open Cup. That long of a layoff would normally mean a slower transition into a team, especially for a player who doesn't have much playing time with his team. But Robinson kept his sharpness in practice, as evident by his performance on Saturday night.
"Just competing in practice, that's all you can do," Robinson said. "Take feedback in practice, and work towards your opportunity. And for me tonight, it was my opportunity."
Next week, with the trip out west to face Real Salt Lake, Olsen will be able to call upon Boswell and Birnbaum, his two preferred center backs, as they make their way back from suspension and international duty. It's likely that Opare will take his normal spot on the bench, which means that Robinson will be on the outside looking in to even make the matchday squad.
That said, Olsen now knows that he has a fourth center back capable of performing at a MLS level. There may have been questions regarding that before Saturday night, but Robinson went a long way to erasing a lot of that doubt with his performance against the Revolution.
"Jalen was big time tonight. To have him come in and get his first MLS start and play well and battle with the leading goal scorer from last year [Kei Kamara]," fellow defender Sean Franklin told B&RU. "For that kid to do so well in his first start is great for us and great for his confidence."
"I thought he was man of the match to come in like that and play so well."