USMNT loses Miles Robinson, a would-be World Cup starter, to torn Achilles

KENNESAW, GA  APRIL 20:  Atlanta defender Miles Robinson (12) passes the ball during the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match between Chattanooga FC and Atlanta United FC on April 20th, 2022 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Miles Robinson's rise to starting USMNT center back included the Atlanta United captaincy. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Miles Robinson, the stalwart center back who last year ascended to a starting role with the U.S. men's national team, ruptured his left Achilles tendon on Saturday while playing for Atlanta United, the club confirmed Monday.

Robinson, 25, suffered the non-contact injury in the 14th minute of an MLS match against the Chicago Fire, and immediately pointed toward his heel. He slammed Atlanta's artificial turf in frustration, and clenched his fist in agony. He covered his face with jersey and hands, devastated, as he was stretchered off.

He'll undergo surgery on Monday, the club said. He could miss the rest of the MLS season and the World Cup, which begins Nov. 21.

Robinson had, over the past 12 months, bloomed into one of the best American defenders in soccer. Atlanta rewarded him with the captain's armband. After he won the 2021 Gold Cup with a 117th-minute header, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter rewarded him with a starting spot when World Cup qualifying opened in September.

Robinson never looked back. He started 11 of the 13 qualifiers for which he was eligible, including all three in March as the U.S. booked its place in Qatar. He and Walker Zimmerman established themselves as the first-choice center back partnership, and seemed likely to anchor the USMNT's defense at the quadrennial tournament.

Now, Robinson faces an uphill race against calendars and a challenging rehab process. Preliminary World Cup rosters will be due in October, and final rosters on Nov. 14, per a source familiar with the deadlines. Very few elite athletes who've torn an Achilles have returned to fields or courts in six months — and even fewer have returned to their best in that timeframe.

Orthopedic medicine has made remarkable progress in recent years, and a six-month recovery is no longer unthinkable. Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers returned to NFL games five-and-a-half months after tearing his Achilles last summer, and returned to the top of the Rams depth chart en route to a Super Bowl title.

Robinson, though, will almost certainly miss the rest of the MLS season. And the USMNT, which convenes for its first of three pre-tournament training camps on May 25, will prepare for Qatar without him.

Potential replacements include Chris Richards, a 22-year-old FC Dallas product currently playing in Germany's Bundesliga; John Brooks, a 2014 World Cup veteran who's fallen out of favor with the national team; and Aaron Long, a former USMNT starter who ruptured his Achilles last May and returned this past winter.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, who hasn't played for the U.S. since 2019, but who is wrapping up the best season of his career at Celtic in Scotland, will also get a look at the May-June training camp, and perhaps beyond.

Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown and Tim Ream could also contend for a World Cup roster spot.

Robinson, though, started more games and played more minutes than any other U.S. center back throughout qualifying. With him and Zimmerman on the field, the USMNT outscored opponents 18-3.

The USMNT will begin its search for a replacement in May and June. It'll play four matches — versus Morocco, Uruguay and Grenada, and at El Salvador — in the upcoming international window.

It'll then play two more in September. The next time it gathers as a full group after that will be in Qatar, one week before its World Cup opener.

“We are devastated for Miles,” Berhalter said in a statement via a spokesman. “He had established himself as a top performer throughout last year and World Cup qualifying. We will be thinking of him and wishing him a successful recovery process.”