Antonee Robinson's goal lifts USMNT over El Salvador in World Cup qualifier

United States' Antonee Robinson (5) celebrates his goal with Weston McKennie (8) and Chris Richards (15) during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against El Salvador, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Antonee Robinson had a surprising confession to make Thursday, an hour after his goal gave the U.S. a 1-0 win over El Salvador in a World Cup qualifier it couldn’t afford to lose.

“I feel weird being called Antonee,” he said. “I prefer being called Jedi.”

A Jedi — someone who shows extraordinary skill or expertise in a specific field — is a name that fits Robinson, who said he’s been answering to it since he was 5.

“When I was really young, I was a big ‘Star Wars’ fan,” he said. “Ever since that age I’ve been called Jedi. It’s just a part of me.”

And thanks to his goal before a sellout crowd of 20,000 at a chilly Stadium, Robinson may soon be part of a World Cup team as well.

With five games remaining in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, the U.S. (5-1-3) is second in the eight-team table, a point behind unbeaten Canada and a point in front of third-place Mexico. The top three teams qualify for this fall’s World Cup in Qatar.

“This is what we’ve been preparing for,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t the prettiest game; there were times when we had to kind of dig out chances. But we got the win. We’re one step closer to our goal of qualifying for the World Cup.”

For Robinson, Thursday’s goal also helped erase some painful memories from the early days of what has been a mostly up-and-down career.

“Antonee has been excellent for us in every window,” teammate Tim Weah said “He’s a huge part of the team and we love and cherish him. I’m glad he’s getting the glory tonight. He really deserves it.”

The temperature at kickoff was 30 degrees with a windchill of 23, making it the second-coldest temperature at kickoff for a qualifier the U.S. has played this century. And neither team looked particularly sharp in a ragged first half that saw Jesús Ferreira miss two close-range shots for the U.S. in a three-minute span.

Even Robinson’s goal, seven minutes into the second half, was as much a product of luck as it was skill. It was also a reward for hustle, with a fortunate bounce dropping the ball at his feet to set up an easy finish.

The sequence started with Salvadoran keeper Marlo González making a sliding stop of Weah’s hard shot from the right edge of the six-yard box. When his defenders failed to clear the rebound from the penalty area, Ferreira was able to head the high carom back toward the net for Weah, who went airborne in an attempt to get a foot on it and missed. That allowed an unmarked Robinson, who was trailing the play, to race in and volley a low left-footed shot past González and in at the far side.

Robinson then celebrated with a somersault and a back handspring.

United States' Christian Pulisic shoots against El Salvador's Darwin Ceren and Alexander Larin.
United States' Christian Pulisic shoots against El Salvador's Darwin Ceren (7) and Alexander Larin during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying match Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

“My friends have been on me for weeks to do that celebration, so I had to pull it out,” Robinson said. “I didn’t tell anyone, so there were a few people scared. But it’s all part of the fun of enjoying the game for me.”

Robinson, 24, who was born in England to U.S. parents, has known both promise and pressure during a career that began in the Everton academy system and took him to Bolton and Wigan before he landed with Fulham last year. His time with the national team has also been checkered, although he has hit his stride during qualifying.

“I can’t really think of a point where it just clicked,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with highs and lows with the national team. I’ve been dealing with highs and lows in football ever since I first on the scholarship with Everton when I was 15, 16 years old. Whether it’s injuries, being left on the team all players have to deal with highs and lows at some point.

“I feel like I’m someone who bounces back from low points. I feel like [U.S. coach] Gregg [Berhalter] has seen the impact that I can bring to the team. [But] when I’m playing well, I definitely don’t take it for granted.”

Nor is Berhalter taking for granted his team’s place in the qualifying table. Especially not with a first-place showdown with Canada looming Sunday.

“The big picture of this [win] we’re still in very good position in World Cup qualifying,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.