ATLANTA — When record signing Ezequiel Barco picked up a muscle injury that would sideline him for the first few weeks of Atlanta United’s 2018 season, the club’s supporters thought Andrew Carleton’s time had come. There was a sudden void in the starting 11, and surely Carleton, then a 17-year-old rising star and Atlanta’s first homegrown signing, was about to make his breakthrough with the Five Stripes. More than a year later, the Powder Springs, Ga., native and his fans are still waiting.
“I don’t really plan or think about or wish how many minutes I should get,” Carleton said after a recent training session. “I’m more focused on how I do with the minutes I do get. In the [games] I was able to get into, I feel like I did a pretty decent job.
“My role right now is just that spark off the bench, to come in and bring some energy. I feel like I’m a pretty good creative, attacking player. I know whenever I come in a game, it’s my job to create some opportunities and make something happen.”
Carleton, who was first noticed with the Georgia United youth program, made his Atlanta United debut on May 20, 2017 — about a month shy of his 17th birthday — against the Houston Dynamo, when he subbed on for former star Miguel Almirón to a loud Bobby Dodd Stadium ovation in the 86th minute. On June 28 of that year, he went 90 minutes, took six shots and drew a penalty in the Five Stripes’ U.S. Open Cup loss at Miami FC.
In October 2017, Carleton dazzled for the United States in a quarterfinals run at the Under-17 World Cup in India. With two goals and three assists, he drew headlines alongside teammates such as Tim Weah, the Paris Saint-Germain attacker who is currently excelling on loan in Scotland with Celtic, and Josh Sargent, who has two goals in 10 appearances for Werder Bremen since debuting with the Bundesliga club last year. Carleton was clearly a future star for the men’s national team, showing a skill set rarely seen in previous generations of American-born attackers.
“I think where he separates himself from a lot of other players is his technical ability, his way to receive the ball, the ease that he has to turn with a man on his back,” U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos said during a phone interview with Pro Soccer USA. “You need really good technique to be able to turn when somebody’s pressuring you, and he has that. There’s not a lot of players that have that.
“As you move up in levels, you need to be doing that type of thing faster and faster until you get to a point where the opponents respect you so much that they don’t want to get close to you. The big players of the world, they usually have time and people stay away from them, because the closer you get, the easier it is for them to beat you. I think Andrew is one of those players that can get to that point.”
After generating so much buzz in 2017, the 2018 season was a let down. Carleton started two games and made a handful of substitute appearances for Atlanta. His meteoric rise in the U.S. system fizzled, in part because of the competition for roster spots on the under-20 team. The squad is loaded with quality attacking players. Weah and Sargent are already playing in Europe. Chris Durkin broke out with D.C. United last season and is the new starlet du jour for USMNT obsessives.
Carleton also has been hampered because of his limbo status with Atlanta United. It is tough to carve out a place in a team that includes the likes of Barco, Héctor “Tito” Villalba, Miguel Almirón, and Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. While he was not in the regular rotation last year, he often made the bench on game days. Carleton missed out on U-20 World Cup qualifying in the fall when then-manager manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino declined to release the player from his club duties as Atlanta was making a playoff run. Ramos said missing those games hurt Carleton’s chances of making the final squad for this summer’s World Cup.
Carleton did not play a minute for Atlanta during the postseason. He was suspended for the MLS Cup final against the Portland Timbers and did not participate in the Five Stripes’ championship parade. Neither he nor the former coaching staff revealed an official reason for the punishment. Carleton partied out on the town the night before the final, according to Pablo Maurer of the Athletic, and posted photos to his Snapchat account.
Frank de Boer succeeded Martino in December. De Boer played with Ajax for 11 seasons and spent another six with the Dutch giant as manager. Considering his long history with a club that is proud of promoting youth players, and Atlanta’s early schedule congestion that seemingly would require lineup rotation to navigate, Carleton again looked in line to break out at the start of 2019.
That did not happen.
He played a total of 27 minutes in substitute appearances against FC Cincinnati and the Philadelphia Union prior to offering comments for this story. He has since played the final 37 minutes of a waterlogged game at the Columbus Crew.
“He’s still very young, we don’t have to underestimate that,” de Boer recently said of the 18-year-old. “From the physical aspect, I think he can still gain a lot, but that’s normal. Maybe he’s still not even fully grown. We have to also be careful about that.
“He will make his minutes this season, hopefully for him.”
Carleton is eager to play for the U.S. U-20s this summer. Youth players typically learn of their national team call-ups via boilerplate emails. Carleton learned of his inclusion in the under-20 camp in Spain last month when he telephoned Ramos, asking if there was anything he could do that would improve his standing with the squad. Carleton performed well in Spain. He made two substitute appearances and scored one goal.
Ramos believes Carleton will be among the 25 to 28 players in contention to make the final 21-player roster. The most important thing Carleton can do now is play, so he can stay in game shape. If those consistent minutes aren’t going to come with Atlanta United, they need to come with the club’s United Soccer League affiliate, ATL UTD 2.
Playing for the USL squad is not as glamorous as suiting up with the senior squad. Atlanta United’s average attendance at the glittering Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season is 56,517. ATL UTD 2 pulls in 2,064 fans per game at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in suburban Kennesaw.
Bouncing between the first and second teams does not appear to affect Carleton’s attitude. In a recent loss against Saint Louis FC, he made plays all over the attacking half and took a team-record eight shots. He followed that up with four shots, two chances created and an assist during a win against North Carolina FC.
— ATL UTD 2 (@atlutd2) April 14, 2019
“His mentality’s been perfect,” ATL UTD 2 head coach Stephen Glass said recently after training. “It’s never been an issue. The days that he’s trained with us, he’s been great. He’s a young professional, he’s a good professional and he’s going to be a top player. So I wouldn’t expect anything different.”
De Boer and Ramos agree with Glass’ assessment of Carleton’s mentality.
“I’m very satisfied with his performance, his attitude, in training and also when he enters the game,” de Boer said.
“I can tell you I’m happy with the way he’s been working,” Ramos concurred.
The Carleton hype is quiet for now. Some fans and pundits have begun to question whether he has the ability to meet the expectations created in 2017. As the “play your kids” movement continues and American teenagers receive more and more minutes in MLS games, Carleton’s absences are conspicuous. However, all of his coaches still gush about his attacking qualities. Even if he misses out on the Under-20 World Cup, and even if his playing time remains limited for Atlanta United this season, the consensus is he still has the potential for greatness — it’s just that the timeline could be slower than everyone expected.
“Hard to say because he’s a creative player, and creative players don’t even know, themselves, what they’re going to do next,” Ramos said when asked to prophesize about Carleton’s future. “That’s what I like about guys like Andrew.
“These kinds of players, I like the fact that they don’t even know what’s happening next. You can’t teach that. So the ceiling, what could it be for Andrew? I really don’t know. He could be the best player we have. I think that would be the ceiling, but it’s a difficult road. There’s a lot of work between now and then, but we’re not talking about a player that doesn’t have the ability to be the best player. He truly does.”