D.C. United's seventh homegrown signing, Jalen Robinson, enters his third professional season at a crossroads as a player. Having signed his first professional contract in January of 2014, Robinson, a defender capable of playing on the right or in the center, has appeared in 8 games for the Black-and-Red, never though in a MLS game.
Instead, he has spent a majority of his time in USL with the Richmond Kickers and Arizona United SC, while appearing in 3 US Open Cup games, and 5 CONCACAF Champions League games for the Black-and-Red. The question for Robinson in 2016 though, is can he build upon his previous experience, and turn it into meaningful time with United, minutes in MLS games.
2015 saw Robinson have an expanded role with both the Richmond Kickers and United, after spending most of 2014 with Arizona United SC. After making just one appearance with the Kickers in 2014 before moving to Arizona on loan, Robinson made 16 appearances with the Kickers in 2015, all starts.
After an appearance in the US Open Cup, to go along with a Champions League game in 2014, Robinson played six times for the Black-and-Red in 2015, with six starts in two Open Cup games, and four Champions League games. But Robinson's 2015 with United ended somewhat suspiciously, with manager Ben Olsen quietly voicing some concern over Robinson's exit from United's last Champions League game.
Minutes after the restart against Montego Bay in Jamaica, Robinson came off, and was replaced by Perry Kitchen, as United rallied from three goals down to earn a point in their final group stage game. Robinson was limping off, but days later, Olsen expressed some disappointment that Robinson had come off, believing that the defender could have fought through to finish the game out.
It was similar to the Jurgen Klinsmann and Fabian Johnson spat in October, though much quieter. That ended up being Robinson's last appearance for the Black-and-Red in 2015, but that was always likely to be the case, with the MLS playoffs following the end of the group stage play in Champions League.
With Chris Korb still working his way back from his torn ACL, Robinson has a chance this preseason to potentially move his way up the depth chart. But even with Korb on the mend, Robinson still has some competition to earn MLS playing time in 2016. Sean Franklin is still the presumed starter at right back, with Luke Mishu and Steve Birnbaum preferred over Robinson in 2015.
Robinson is also capable of playing in the center of the backline, but faces similar stiff competition in Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare. In short, Robinson will have to thoroughly impress to stay with United for MLS play early on in 2016, otherwise, he's likely to head down to Richmond again.
Last year, after Robinson was named to the MLS Homegrown Game team, B&RU asked Olsen about Robinson's development, and where he stood with the team. Despite some praise for the former Wake Forest product, Olsen was adamant that MLS minutes weren't in Robinson's immediate future.
"He's progressing. He's not there yet to get minutes with the first team. But each year he is growing, and that's what this is about," Olsen said in 2015. "Not everybody is Andy Najar, [where] you jump on the field and suddenly you're at Anderlecht. Some of these players need time. They need years of games and training to get the speed. But he's a good prospect."
There is some concerns about the development of younger players at United. Off the record, and not specific to Robinson, there have been several questions about the direction of the development for those on the outside looking in to United's squad, including the homegrown players. While Olsen has done well managing an older cast of players the past two seasons to playoff appearances, it has meant limited time for rookies and homegrowns and youngsters alike, with Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp the noticeable exceptions.
In the assessment of Robinson at the conclusion of the season, you the readers voted overwhelming to keep Jalen around for the 2016 season. While he is likely to stay with the club in one form or another, his third professional season can potentially determine the direction the rest of his career heads toward. If he starts earning time with United in MLS play, then concerns about his development may be short lived.