Antonee Robinson was raised in Liverpool, ready to break out for U.S.
LYON, France -- When Antonee Robinson was growing up in Liverpool, England, he would overdose on American television, spending his days glued to the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. He counted "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" and "Hannah Montana" as his favorites. He couldn't get enough of Star Wars, either, taking on the nickname "Jedi" when he was 5 years old, one that has stuck to this day.
"I don't remember it but my mum tells me that I watched those shows so much that I used to talk with an American accent. People used to ask if I was American when I was younger," he told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. He then grinned: "That's pretty embarrassing."
Rest assured, Robinson's accent now is Liverpool through and through, but his American connection remains, and he recently made his first forays with the U.S. men's national team. The Everton left-back got his first experience with the U.S. during a camp prior to last March's friendly against Paraguay. Then on Memorial Day he made his international debut, playing the whole 90 minutes in a 3-0 win over Bolivia, a stint that saw him assist on Timothy Weah's second-half goal.
"Obviously, you don't expect to just turn up and be a member of the team straight away," said Robinson. "You've got to work your way in and then earn the trust of your teammates and the manager. I feel like I've done as much as I can to show that I want to be in this team and I want to get a starting place."
Robinson's American ties run deeper than just his affection for the country's pop culture, though. His father, Marlon, was born in England but spent some of his formative years in White Plains, New York. The elder Robinson later played collegiate soccer at Duke University from 1981 to 1984; it proved to be enough time to acquire U.S. citizenship, which he eventually passed down to Antonee. The younger Robinson even recalls family trips to New York for Christmas and vacations in Florida.
"I do feel like I have that connection," he said.
It's one that was almost buried. There are obstacles to be overcome in every international career, but Robinson has had more than his share; he also has the scars to prove it. As he sits down in the lounge of the U.S. team hotel, one can't help but notice the 5-inch surgical scars running down the front of each knee. The one on his left knee was needed to repair a fractured patella he suffered in 2014. A year later, he was forced to undergo micro-fracture surgery on his right knee, which sidelined him for the entire 2015-16 season.
Robinson said it was the support of his father that kept him going. Marlon Robinson had seen his own career ended by a broken ankle and didn't want to see his son's career ruined in the same way.
"He'd say how he didn't have the physios that we have, and he didn't have the attitude," the younger Robinson said. "He would always say to me, 'You're lucky -- you've got someone to tell you that you need a strong mental attitude and to come back stronger.'"
Everton, who signed Robinson as an 11-year-old, stuck by him through all of these travails, and the defender has been able to stay healthy since then. The 2016-17 campaign was spent with Everton's U-23 team, allowing him to log minutes and prove his fitness. This past season, he spent the year on loan with second-tier Bolton Wanderers, with the club avoiding relegation on the last day of the campaign thanks to a 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest. Survival was achieved thanks to two goals in the last four minutes, plus the fact that both Burton Albion and Barnsley lost.
"It was ridiculous," said Robinson. "When were 1-0 up, we celebrated as if we'd won the World Cup final. Then we dropped back to 2-1 down and you're just thinking, 'How has this happened to us?' Thankfully we stuck in it, we kept our heads up and got the win."
The escape has allowed Robinson to enjoy his most recent involvement with the U.S. team with a clear head, enabling him to sharpen some aspects of his game in the process.
"Everything speeds up," said Robinson about his time with the U.S. squad. "Even though we've got a pretty young group, the first thing I noticed when I came into camp was that everyone was quicker, sharper to the ball. There's a lot of energy, and obviously a different style of play to how we played at Bolton. I think it's a lot more possession, passing and moving the ball. Everyone is really confident as well, so you know you've just got to be yourself out there."
Whether Robinson sees the field in Saturday's friendly against France is still unknown, though it seems likely that caretaker manager Dave Sarachan will opt for the more experienced head of Jorge Villafana. But Robinson is looking ahead as well. There's a new manager, Marco Silva, to impress at Everton. Robinson is also age-eligible to take part in the 2020 Olympics.
"From a young age, it's always been a dream to go to the Olympics," he said. "It's not really been on my mind in recent years because I've never really thought a lot about it, but then coming back to the U.S., and knowing that I'm eligible for the next one -- it's in Tokyo, a place I'd love to go -- is really exciting. I hope I go to that."
All in all, he sounds like a player who is more than comfortable to be called an American.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.