When the MLS Homegrown team takes the field tonight (9 PM, streaming on MLSsoccer.com) for the second annual MLS Homegrown Game, it's possible that D.C. United will be represented on the team for the first time. Jalen Robinson, the 7th homegrown player ever signed by United, is part of the team that will face off against Mexican giant Club America's under-20 side.
Robinson has spent most of the season playing for the Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League. With United, the Wake Forest product has four appearances in two seasons (three US Open Cup outings to go with one CONCACAF Champions League match). With plenty of competition for playing time in the nation's capital, Robinson has been on loan with the Kickers, where he has earned valuable playing time that he wouldn't see otherwise.
"It's great, it gets my confidence up," Robinson told B&RU last week about playing for Richmond over sitting for United. "And when I come back, I feel like I'm sharper. I'd rather go down and get games, and it's not bad football. I'll take it for what it's worth and get better."
Back in June, Robinson played 210 minutes over two games in the Open Cup. After an extra time victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Robinson received another start at right back against the Philadelphia Union in United's fifth round loss. The game against Philadelphia marked the first time that Robinson had appeared in a game against a MLS side, with his previous games coming against USL opposition and Tauro F.C., of the Liga Panameña de Fútbol.
"Both were good experiences for me this year. Playing against an MLS team is different," said Robinson. "It's a lot higher than USL. It makes me hungry to make my MLS debut."
While Robinson is seeing an expanded role with Richmond, his United manager Ben Olsen still feels that former academy player is still a ways from seeing first team minutes, much less becoming a fixture in the side like fellow homegrown players Bill Hamid and Andy Najar before him.
"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 told B&RU. "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."
Last year, Robinson was part of the contingent of D.C. United players to head to Richmond on loan for the season. But with fellow loanee Conor Shanosky and William Yomby dominating playing time in defense, Robinson only made one appearance for the side.
Knowing the situation, United recalled Robinson before sending him out to Arizona United SC where he made 19 appearances (including 10 starts). Back in Richmond this season, Robinson has made 12 appearances (all starts) with the Kickers while also getting playing with the US under-23 team at the Toulon Tournament in France back in May.
For Kickers manager Leigh Cowlishaw, an appearance at the MLS Homegrown Game is just another opportunity for the young player.
"It's another great experience for his development. He had a wonderful opportunity with the national team in France in the Toulon Tournament, where he got some valuable playing time," Cowlishaw told B&RU in a phone interview. "This will be another great opportunity to play against top opposition with like-minded players."
Robinson spent two years with the D.C. United academy team, before committing to play at Wake Forest University. The defender spent two years at the ACC school - earning a All-ACC Second Team nod in 2013 - before signing a Homegrown Player deal with the Black-and-Red in January of 2014.
And in between playing for Richmond, the US under-23 team, and D.C. United, Robinson has been constantly improving this year according to Cowlishaw.
"He's one of our most consistent performers. Very solid. He's a possession player out of the back, he's able to help us build attacks," Cowlishaw said. "I think his weakest part is his defensive side of the game, but he's improved leaps and bounds for us this year. He's been a very valuable member of the squad, and we're looking forward to seeing him grow throughout the rest of the season."
For now, Robinson is excited to be with the other MLS homegrown players, looking to make an appearance for the team, managed by one of the most famous former MLS players.
"I think it's a great opportunity to play in the MLS Homegrown Game," Robinson said. "Landon Donovan is the coach, what more can you ask for?"