From the age of 10, Andrew Carleton did much of his schooling at home through online classes.
Back then — before Atlanta United FC made him the club’s first homegrown signing and fans nicknamed him “The Frosted Orange” because the color of his hair matches The Varsity’s trademark beverage — Carleton took the homeschool route so he could focus on soccer in between studies.
That decision paid off, as Carleton, 17, is a rising star in U.S. Soccer’s youth national team and is likely to see many minutes with the Major League Soccer side this season.
Atlanta coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino praised Carleton, saying the young midfielder “put himself closer to the first team than (ATL UTD 2, the team’s USL affiliate in nearby Gwinnett County), both as a winger and as a No. 10.”
A comment like that from one of the most respected coaches in MLS might go to a teenager’s head. But Carleton took it in stride.
“Of course, I was happy to hear that,” Carleton said. “… I’m just focused on playing well every single day. It’s not my decision how much I play. I want to play more, I think everybody does, but my job is to go out there every day and be able to prove that I’m able to do that.”
Carleton has since completed a GED program and is finished with high school, according to a spokesperson for the Five Stripes. However, he is still very much an eager student of soccer.
Before, his instructors spoke to him about history, math and English through online portals. Now, his teachers are the older players around him, kicking him balls and giving advice whenever they can.
When Darlington Nagbe was asked about Carleton’s play last week, improvements weren’t the first thing that came to mind.
“He’s got some of the best feet I’ve seen,” said Nagbe, who’s been around a lot of talented players with skillful feet in his 11 seasons as a professional.
Nagbe arrived in Atlanta during the offseason after the club sent more than $1 million of allocation money to Portland. His credentials are well-known. Nagbe won a College Cup and MLS Cup, is a former MLS All-Star and has more than 20 appearances with the U.S. men’s national team.
At 27-years-old, Nagbe is still in the prime of his career. But 21 players on Atlanta’s roster are younger than him, and at least one player looks to him often for tips and tricks.
“Nagbe is a cool guy and we get along well off the field and on the field. I’ve definitely watched him and tried to pick up on a couple of things,” Carleton said. “I’ve had some questions and he’s been cool about that. He’s played with the national team and that’s one of my dreams, so just to pick his brain and see what he has to say about that type of stuff is always good to have a guy like that around.”
What Carleton hopes to accomplish are many things that Nagbe already has. Now that he has face-to-face access with one of the top midfielders in MLS over the past decade, Carleton is trying to soak up as much as he can from Nagbe.
And Nagbe doesn’t mind.
“(Carleton) has a lot of upside,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, he comes in here and is working hard and he’s eager to learn. He’s coming up to me and asking questions about everything and I love that.”
Carleton says he’s learned quite a bit about the game and leadership from 34-year-old Michael Parkhurst, Atlanta’s captain and centerback. A year ago, he said he considered Miguel Almiron and Yamil Asad as role models.
Last season, he saw action in just one MLS contest with Atlanta and four USL games with the Charleston Battery. Carleton hopes that number increases this year, and based on how much and how well he played in the preseason, it likely will.
In the Five Stripes final preseason game against Charleston, Carleton flicked his orange cleats behind him in the sixth minute to set-up a chance for Franco Escobar. Then, in the 66th minute, he booted a ball nearly the width of the field to set up a chance for Jon Gallagher.
It was Carleton’s performance in that game that drew praise from Martino. The Argentinian coach called the homegrown talent from Cobb County one of Atlanta’s “best guys on the field.”
In another preseason game, against the Columbus Crew, Carleton struck the post with a blistering shot in the 86th minute. Most of Carleton’s minutes have come as a left winger, but as Martino said, he can play the 10 too. Carleton says he doesn’t really have a favorite position.
“Out wide, I like being one-on-one. A lot of times it’s just you against the left back, or two-on-two with the winger overlapping. So, I like that aspect,” Carleton said. “But in the middle, I like being in tight areas and being able to create that quick little combination to goal. I feel like that’s one of my strengths, creating those chances.”
Despite the wishes and cries from many fans, Carleton didn’t play last week when Atlanta got thumped 4-nil by the Houston Dynamo.
He says he isn’t much of a “rituals guy” and prepares the same every week. On game days, Carleton wakes up, stretches, tries to stay loose all afternoon, and then jams out to Atlanta-based rap group Migos before taking the field. The red-headed teenager says he’s a big hip-hop fan.
The time for Carleton to have a real role with Atlanta United is coming soon. Whenever that comes, he’s ready for it.
But Carleton is still a kid. Between now and when he earns a starting nod, he’s staying patient and learning as much as he can.
“Every young player’s goal is to break into the first team,” Carleton said. “I thought I had a pretty good preseason. Now that the season is starting, it’s just my job to keep that going and keep on getting closer and closer to the first team.”