| Friday, November 8, 2002 19:34 EST
Here's to you, Mr. Robinson
By Marc Connolly
No offense, guys, but here's how it undoubtedly went for 90 percent of you living outside of the Bay Area:
You looked at Bruce Arena's 23-man roster for the friendly against El Salvador on November 17. You got excited upon seeing names of National Team neophytes such as Taylor Twellman, Kyle Martino and Daniel Hernandez. Then you examined the list further, saw the name of some chap Eddie Robinson, and one word came to mind:
Unless you happened to see the San Jose Earthquakes play in the second half of the season, this had to be the case. Even Eddie Robinson himself would call you a liar if you said otherwise.
"I mean, I only played one game last year, and that was 89 minutes," said the 24-year-old central defender on Wednesday afternoon. "In the first half this year, I wasn't playing at all, either."
Yet, a mere five months later, Robinson is living proof that making your mark on the MLS fields -- despite reputation, youth national team experience and anything else that often times is thrown into the political game of selecting such teams -- will get you noticed and perhaps a shot with the Big Boyz.
"Eddie had a solid season with San Jose, and has demonstrated good qualities as a center back," said Bruce Arena, who is in the process of finalizing a deal with U.S. Soccer that will secure his future as National Team coach through the 2006 World Cup in Germany. "We're going to look and see what his potential might be at the international level."
Robinson had no idea that Arena was monitoring his play and that he impressed him enough that a call-up was imminent. Then again, Robinson probably doesn't know about the sweet satellite system the U.S. skipper has set up for monitoring games all over the world from his Northern Virginia lair.
It wasn't until his coach, Frank Yallop, called him in for an end-of-the-year meeting that he learned just how high up the ladder he had climbed with his strong play down the stretch.
"Coach told me that Bruce Arena had called him and asked about me and that there was a possibility that I might be included in the pool," said Robinson, a Greensboro, N.C. native. "Then I got an e-mail a week later saying I was one of the 30 players he selected for the pool and that he was going to select the final 23 for the camp after the U.S. Open Cup final."
Sure enough, on the Monday after Columbus downed MLS Cup champion Los Angeles in the U.S. Open Cup, Robinson got a call from Pam Perkins, the G.M. of the National Team, to let him know he'd be in D.C. with the team for the first international game the U.S. squad has had since triumphantly leaving Asia as a World Cup quarterfinalists.
"I was ecstatic," said Robinson. "I thought I did pretty well this season and coach kept encouraging me, but I was totally surprised to be called in. I was hoping to get called in over the next year or two since now that I've established myself in our starting 11. That was my goal. So to have my chance to prove myself, I'm just so very pleased."
In the week-and-a-half since getting word out of Chicago, Robinson has been asking some of his already-capped 'Quake teammates about what to expect.
He's especially been talking to his roommate, Richard Mulrooney, who has made four appearances with the U.S. and was an alternate on this year's World Cup squad.
"(Mulrooney) said how it's going to be intense, but awesome and a great experience overall," said Robinson, who also mentioned that he's going to place a call to teammate Jeff Agoos for advice on what Arena looks for in central defenders. "It'll be so much fun, but really tough. I expect it to be hard-nosed because a lot of guys are in here for the first time and trying to get their first cap."
Including Robinson, 11 players on the roster do not have a cap to their credit, and four others have four or less appearances for the Nats (Leo Cullen, Jeff Cunningham, Tim Howard and Sasha Victorine).
Robinson is one of seven defenders, all of which are players that are either new to the side or haven't had any World Cup or World Cup qualifying experience under their belt.
This is an area that Arena has mentioned recently as being a light as far as depth goes since players like Agoos, Carlos Llamosa, David Regis are in their mid-30s, and with a definite weakness in depth and quality at outside back.
"He's calling in a lot of young guys to look at the future now because a lot of the players from this year's World Cup team won't be around for the next one," said Robinson.
If you haven't seen Robinson play, picture a younger Gregg Berhalter as far as height (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) and strength in the air along with a tenacity in tackling that could be likened to a Chris Armas.
Having played as a defensive midfielder for most of life, and now as a central defender, ball-winning is something that Robinson has a knack for and takes to heart. Just asking him gets his blood boiling.
"I take it so personal when I see a forward or a midfielder coming at me with the ball trying to beat me," said San Jose's second-round selection in the 2001 draft. "Their number one goal is to try and make me look stupid and score on us. I hate that. It brings out rage in me. There's no way you're going to get by me. I play with that sort of pride and passion.
"I like to be aggressive, I like tackling hard and I like challenging for balls in the air."
But that's not all there is to his game. The grit he displays is offset nicely with improved ball skills and a cerebral element to his marking and positioning that was fine-tuned during his rookie season.
"For the most part, my improvement has come with a lot of watching Jeff Agoos and Troy Dayak," said Robinson. "Last year, I felt they were the best center back combo in the league, so observing those guys play and their positioning in situations helped. If I have any questions ever, they always are more than happy to help. I've learned from watching and playing with (midfielder) Ronnie Ekelund as well."
With injuries to Agoos and Dayak, in addition to all the time Agoos missed with the World Cup squad, Robinson finally got his chance, starting 16 of the 19 games he played in. Once he found he could truly compete at such a level, everything became easier for him on the pitch.
"You can practice all you want, but you can never get that experience unless you play," he said. "The more you play, the less nervous you get. As the season went on, my nerves shrunk more before each game. By the playoffs, I didn't have any nerves at all."
That may not be the case when he gets to U.S. training camp, but nervousness would be understandable in such an environment.
In fact, never having played for any of the youth National Teams, this will be Robinson's first chance to wear the red, white and blue, something that would have been a long shot when he was in college at the University of North Carolina and off the radar screens of the Project-40 administrators, the U-20 and U-23 national teams and certainly the various second- and third-division European clubs that have been pulling young collegiate players out of school the past several years.
"Believe me, If I had to chance to leave school early and play, I would have done it," said Robinson.
But instead, he took what is now the unconventional role to being a starter in MLS and a member of the National Team pool - four years of college soccer.
It's not the recommended way anymore, yet if it is the only path to get there, Robinson has showed that moving up the charts -- and at a meteoric pace considering where he was less than two years ago -- can be done without much external fanfare.
"When you get your chance, you make the most of it and you can be rewarded," said Robinson. "Just keep plugging away and you will get noticed. It happens."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eddie Robinson made significant strides during the 2002 season.