CARY, N.C. — Andrew Carleton emerged from the locker room fresh after a quick shower. His hair was slicked back, he wore a black t-shirt with an Atlanta United FC logo emblazoned across the chest, and a smile covered his face.
Carleton, Atlanta’s first-ever Homegrown signing, has had a microscope aimed at his back this season. His troubles — on and off the pitch — have been noted, examined, discussed and debated.
Within the past nine months, he was barred by the club from attending the celebrations following the MLS Cup victory, had his new head coach call him out in the media and then publicly demote him to the second team. The demotion came after Carleton wasted an opportunity to get minutes with the first team by forgetting to pack his passport on a road trip to Toronto. And, after being previously considered a lock to make the squad, Carleton was left off the United States national team for the U-20 World Cup.
But what became clear after speaking with Carleton following ATL UTD 2’s 4-2 loss to North Carolina FC July 27 is this: Carleton acknowledges his mistakes. He knows he needs to fix some things and he’s trying to develop, both as a professional athlete and an adult.
And he still loves the beautiful game, and he’s having a whole lot of fun playing it.
“Yea, I was having fun,” Carleton said in a hallway at WakeMed Soccer Park. “Except when we were losing… I’m really enjoying soccer right now. I love it. I’m just enjoying my time playing, working hard, having fun, seeing where life takes me.”
Between bites from his postgame meal — a Chipotle burrito bowl — and giving daps to some U.S. youth national teammates walking by, such as Manny Perez, the 19-year-old reflected on what has been a tumultuous and erratic year.
“It’s been an interesting season,” Carleton told Pro Soccer USA. “I had a couple of slip-ups – if you want to call them that. It’s something that you learn from. As a young player, you try to get the most out of those things and learn from it. I’m just trying to work hard and get back to a place where I’m fighting for minutes with the first team.”
Carleton seems to be back in that spot now. On Tuesday, he made the 18-man roster for Atlanta United’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal against rival Orlando City SC. And in the 49th minute, manager Frank de Boer called his number, subbing in the kid fans nicknamed “the Frosted Orange” for Ezequiel Barco.
It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but Carleton’s play helped create the goal Emerson Hyndman scored in the 78th minute that essentially punched the Five Stripes’ ticket to the U.S. Open Cup final, giving the club its second shot at a trophy in just three seasons.
During that sequence, Carleton shifted toward the center of the pitch and hung out near the top of the box as Franco Escobar and Hyndman made a backside run. When Eric Remedi played the ball into Escobar, there was a gaggle of Orlando defenders looking Carleton’s way, while just one stayed with Escobar and Hyndman. Escobar effortlessly gathered the ball and played it to Hyndman, who accurately tapped it in. Carleton was the first to run over and give Hyndman a celebratory hug.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) August 7, 2019
“I think he did well and he worked very hard,” de Boer said after the match. “This is the Carleton we want to see.”
That de Boer trusted Carleton to play freely in a high-stakes match perhaps contradicts the young forward’s initial impression of his coach. When asked about the differences between former Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino and de Boer, Carleton described the Dutchman as being “more conservative” than the Argentine.
“It’s mostly the style of play,” Carleton said. “Tata’s was more of a free-flowing, kind-of playing with what the game gives you-type of thing. Frank has more of a detailed, tactical, wait for your moment, safer style of play than Tata was. Tata was more of a risk taker. We were going to take the risks that reward us, and sometimes it’d bite us in the butt, but sometimes it’d be the best thing for us.”
Not only does Carleton have a new head coach at the MLS level this season, but when he’s with ATL UTD 2 – the club’s USL Championship affiliate – there’s a new man calling the shots, too. During the offseason, the 2’s previous coach Scott Donnelly left the club to become a scout for Manchester United. Replacing him was Stephen Glass, who had previously coached Atlanta United’s academy teams.
“It’s pretty similar. I’ve liked different things working with both,” Carleton said of Donnelly and Glass. “We have a really, really young team. This year it seems like it’s gotten even younger.”
During that match against North Carolina FC, the average age of the squad that took the pitch in Cary, N.C., that day was 19.4 years old, the youngest team the club has ever fielded.
While Carleton is often the youngest player on the field in MLS, he can be one of the oldest with the ATL UTD 2. And he’s expected to be a leader.
“It’s a little strange, but I always think, I’ve been in their shoes at 16, where I was the only 16-year-old out there,” Carleton said. “So, I know what it’s like to be on the other end of it, so I just try to give the younger guys stuff that I’ve picked up on and go forward from there.”
Glass said that if Carleton performs the way he did against NCFC, “he has a big opportunity to do well at this club.”
“His work rate was fantastic,” Glass added. “He led the group. He was an example for the younger players. I think you don’t perform like that if you don’t have a senior player in your group that is doing it. It is a weird one to say — I think Andrew is 19 years old and I’m talking about him being one of the senior players in the group.”
In that game against NCFC, Carleton played a full 90 minutes, creating two chances and tallying three tackles with two fouls won, two key passes, two interceptions and a 67% accuracy rate on passes. He nearly had an assist when he delivered a smooth ball into the box that was put on frame by Wesly Decas’ head, but NCFC’s Alex Tambakis gobbled it up. Carleton was also hit with a yellow card in that game after mixing it up with Nazmi Albadawi.
The following week, in a 4-2 win over Loudoun United, Carleton put two shots on goal, created three chances, won three fouls and was 73 percent accurate on his passes over 90 minutes.
After the U.S. Open Cup semifinal win, de Boer told reporters Carleton’s inclusion in the game was a “reward” for his hard work at training and with the USL side. In May, de Boer may have given the Homegrown some motivation when he told assembled media that Carleton needed to “grow up” and “avoid distractions.”
How did Carleton respond to hearing that?
“I just worked hard,” Carleton said. “In that situation, what you can’t do is put your head down. Get back to what you know and work hard. Other than that, not too much.”
When asked if de Boer was right in his criticism, Carleton paused for a moment, then said, “I’d say that there were definitely some correct points there. I think I’ve been trying to handle it the best that I can and do stuff that is right and just trying to go forward from there.”
Carleton has set some goals for himself this year. He’d like to get back in the mix for the youth national team, and like any player, he’d like to send some balls into the back of the net.
But more than anything, Carleton realized he has some growing up to do. Above accumulating stats, that’s where his concentration is right now.
“I think this year has been a big growing year for me, as far as just maturing as a person. I think that’s one of the main things I’ve focused on this year; just learning how to be an adult instead of a young kid,” Carleton said. “And you can be mature on the field, too. Being mature is the way you play, the way you carry yourself, the way you take care of your body off the field. It’s all of those three things.
“For me, I’ve focused hard on that, and hopefully over the next few months it’ll show.”