Jul 31, 2018; Marietta, GA, USA; MLS Homegrown and Atlanta United forward Andrew Carleton (9) controls the ball against the Tigres U-20s at Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
MARIETTA, Ga. — While the other team came all the way from Mexico, and some of his teammates came from around North America, Andrew Carleton was right at home Tuesday night.
The 18-year-old Powder Springs, Ga., native and Atlanta United F.C. midfielder starred in the 2018 MLS Homegrown Game on his home turf, helping lead his fellow budding MLS stars to a 1-1 draw against Tigres UANL’s U-20 squad.
While most of the players had never stepped foot on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground before this week, it’s Carleton’s natural habitat. As Atlanta United’s first homegrown signing, he’s been honing his skills on the fields in Cobb County for more than two years.
He appeared comfortable in the first half, taking defenders on, showcasing his quick feet and drawing the opposition in for fouls.
For Tony Annan, the MLS Homegrown coach and Atlanta United’s academy director, Carleton’s abilities were nothing new, but he’s still impressed by the young winger.
“I thought Andrew, at times, showed his class. He just does things that other players don’t do and don’t dare to do,” Annan said. “Although he wasn’t involved as much, because I played him on the right and we didn’t get him rolling in as much as we could, I was happy with him and the way he played. I think he showed some really bright moments.”
Carleton’s free kick just before halftime set up the lone score of the game for the MLS Homegrowns. From about 35 yards out, he trotted up to the ball and lofted it into the box with his right foot. The cross was headed down by NYCFC defender James Sands, then slotted into the net by Toronto FC’s Liam Fraser.
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“I thought it was a pretty decent game,” Carleton said. “Our goal was to just go out there and have fun, enjoy the game and play well, and I think we did that. I think all of the guys enjoyed it and had a good time out there.”
Carleton was subbed off at halftime. In addition to his hockey assist, he created a chance, won three fouls and was 87 percent accurate on 16 passes. For his play, he was given the game’s MVP award.
It was Carleton who was selected to wear the captain’s armband for the game. He said he wasn’t sure how the decision was made, but called it “an honor” to represent the league, Atlanta and his family in the match.
Despite having just days to prepare, Carleton felt the MLS Homegrowns meshed together well. He said he’s played with about half of the players before, but was especially excited to share the pitch again with Jaylin Lindsey, the Sporting KC defender who was teammates with Carleton on the United States under-17 team.
“We got along well off the field and I think that translated onto the field,” Carleton said. “I thought we were pretty solid together.”
So far this season, Carleton has appeared in five MLS games, earning one start. He’s notched two shots on-goal and an assist in his total of 90 minutes of play. He’s also seen action with Atlanta’s United Soccer League side, ATL UTD 2.
A second Atlanta player took the field in the second half. Lagos Kunga, a 19-year-old Angola native, played the final 20 minutes of the match.
Kunga grew up in nearby Clarkston, Ga., and has made a name for himself this season as a speedy two-way wing, who can defend at a high level, but also dart past defenders with the ball at his feet.
“I think Lagos did okay,” Annan said. “He played two 90-minute games this week, so it was difficult for him to come in and be the spark that I know he can be. But I was happy with the way he worked defensively.”
Kunga has appeared in 17 ATL UTD 2 games this season. He’s tallied one goal, eight interceptions, two assists, 17 key passes, and has a 68 percent success rate on tackles and has been 77 percent accurate on his passes.
“I thought he did good and made an impact,” Carleton said of Kunga. “He was taking guys one-on-one. That’s what he does best.”
Added Kunga: “With all the injuries that I’ve had, I’m still trying to get my fitness up… I feel good. As the season goes on, I think I’ll get back to form and start producing.”
While the Homegrowns were once again unable to get a victory in this annual game, Annan believes that the academies of MLS are producing talent that is beginning to bridge the gap between it and other leagues around the world. He pointed to the transfer of Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich as proof of that.
“There is a process to producing a player. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Alphonso took the steps. He went through an academy system, he went to USL, he earned the right to play on the first team and then he did it in the first team, and now he’s moving on to Europe. There’s a pathway there for the players now,” Annan said. “If players have the patience and coaches have the patience with these young, talented kids and don’t rush the process, there’s a really good pathway here for a player that can be produced and sustain a career.
“Time will tell, but we’ve definitely made advances in that area.”