John Hackworth can't forget the first time he saw Andrew Carleton. It was November 2014, and Hackworth was running his first camp as the new coach of the United States Under-15 boys' squad.
Early in the session, Carleton, whom Hackworth hadn't seen play before the camp, took a long, diagonal pass from across the field. With time and space, Carleton had a chance to play it forward, the type of smart and simple play a manager would appreciate. He didn't. At the last second, Carleton jumped up and contorted his torso. The ball slammed off his back, leading to a turnover. Hackworth, shocked and confused, continued the session but made a mental note to question Carleton about the poor decision in a vulnerable part of the field.
During a water break a few minutes later, Hackworth approached the teenager and asked him what, exactly, he was trying to do. Two-and-a-half years later, Hackworth remembers the exact response. "He said, 'Coach, I watched Cristiano Ronaldo do it, and I just had to try it,'" Hackworth, now the U.S. U-17 coach, tells B/R. "That's very indicative of Andrew. He has that creative imagination. And he wants to have fun. He plays soccer with a smile on his face."
All Hackworth could do was laugh. "You don't run into many kids who try that in their first training session with the new national team coach," Hackworth says. "I had to like the confidence that he had right away." Four months later, Carleton would score seven goals in five matches, helping the U.S. win the Tournament delle Nazioni over national squads from countries including Brazil, England, Italy and Mexico.
Carleton's flair—and the belief that he can be as creative as he imagines—have made the 17-year-old Atlanta United FC attacker one of the most tantalizing young talents in Major League Soccer. "He's the most dangerous and dynamic attacking player I've ever coached or seen on the youth level," Georgia United Soccer Alliance coach Dave Smith says about the two years he spent working with the stick-thin Georgia native.
Michael Anhaeuser, who coached Carleton last season when he was on loan to the United Soccer League's Charleston Battery, agrees. "You almost compare [his confidence] to Christian Pulisic's," Anhaeuser says. "He kind of has that same demeanor."
Yet, unlike Pulisic, who developed his game in the States but earned his breakout half a world away at Borussia Dortmund, Carleton is emerging at home. The kid is already a star in Atlanta, winning a standing ovation from a crowd of 45,000 at Bobby Dodd Stadium simply for stepping onto the field when he made his MLS debut in May. He's taken a leading role for Hackworth's U-17 team, a squad that could contend for the age group World Cup title in October.
If Carleton continues along his current trajectory, he might change American soccer and become the first true homegrown star to lead an MLS team. He's the latest—and best—sign that the bright future of American men's soccer, promised for so long, may finally be just around the bend.
Millions of kids say they want to be professional soccer players. Andrew Carleton, born six months into the new millennium, became an active participant in that effort at an early age.
At 10, he told his parents he wanted to be home-schooled so he could focus on developing his skills. According to Carleton, his parents supported the decision, and his mom, who has a teacher's license, was "happy to chase the dream with me." He'd train in the morning, do online courses in the afternoon and then train again at night. (His two younger brothers, now ages 10 and 12, are following in his path, home-schooling while one plays for a local youth club and the other for Atlanta United's academy. Sister Erin, 15, has participated in two national team training camps as well.)
After a few years of playing on his own near his Powder Springs home about 20 miles outside of Atlanta, Carleton joined Georgia United, a local feeder program for U.S. youth national teams. Smith, the club's executive director and a coach, remembers Carleton's first U-16 practice. "He stood out from the very beginning: his quickness, his technical ability, his movement," Smith says. "The very first time I saw him, just as you walked up to watch the field you could see there was something different. He just has a presence when he's on the field. He's very dynamic with the way he plays. He's always looking to make something happen in the attacking end of the field."
During the two years Smith worked with Carleton, he saw dozens of moments that shocked him, displays of skill and creativity that made the coach almost feel bad for the opposition. But it was a failed attempt that stands out most.
Georgia United's U-16 team had traveled to Vancouver to play the Whitecaps in the quarterfinal of the Development Academy playoffs. The atmosphere was intense, and the animosity directed toward Carleton's team only grew after he scored on a free kick to put Georgia United ahead. A few minutes later, he picked up the ball at midfield, dribbled around a couple of defenders and then attempted to score on a chip from 50 yards. Only a last-ditch, scrambling effort from the goalkeeper kept the ball out of the back of the net.
Carleton didn't score, but he did win over the crowd. "Even though they were against us, the entire stadium reacted," Smith says. "They went nuts."
That type of audacity is in short supply in American men's soccer, where athleticism and effort traditionally are in greater supply than technical ability. Even if Carleton doesn't pull off the same move as Ronaldo or score from 50 yards out, his willingness to try is a necessary part of his development, and that of U.S. soccer as well. "When you try to pull off the kind of stuff that he tries to pull off, you have to be OK with failing," Hackworth says. "That's the hardest part for coaches and players—to say, 'It's OK to fail,' but that's how you grow. You have to take that and you have to love it."
Until a few years ago, a kid like Carleton might have gotten lost. His local MLS club, after all, didn't exist. But now, as the professional soccer landscape develops in the U.S., more options present themselves. Last June, he signed with Atlanta United as its first homegrown player. In turn, he was loaned to the club's USL partner, the Charleston Battery, where he could gain experience against pros twice his age.
The step up didn't deter the teen, as Anhaeuser, the club's coach, discovered in Carleton's first practice. "[Andrew] did a double stepover, then turned sideways and tried to nutmeg one of my older players," Anhaeuser says. "He got kicked up in the air. But then he came back and tried it again five minutes later. And the second time he jumped out of the tackle. Right there showed he had a little bit of confidence on the field to not be scared."
Carleton only played four games for the Battery, tallying a single assist. He started the 2017 campaign bouncing between Atlanta United and the U.S. U-17 squads. In May, he helped Hackworth's team qualify for the World Cup. He scored twice: a cheeky chip in the qualification stage against Cuba and a blistering strike in the CONCACAF U-17 final versus Mexico.
Hackworth called Carleton one of his "core players," noting a level of improved leadership that earned the teenager the captain's armband on a recent trip to Argentina. "He's a better decision-maker, and he's much more well-rounded," Hackworth says. "The biggest thing that I've seen out of him is that he can play in transition moments now and really be impactful on both sides of the ball. Before, when we'd have it and lose it, there was a little bit of a time where he would turn off. That's natural for a young player. Andrew doesn't switch off now. He's as good getting the ball back so he can go forward to goal."
Two weeks after his impressive run at the CONCACAF Championship, Carleton earned his MLS debut, coming on for Miguel Almiron in the 86th minute of a match against the Houston Dynamo. "I couldn't understand what anybody was really saying," Carleton recalls of the moment. "I just remember thinking that this is what I worked every day for. Once I got on the pitch, it was just soccer, something I'd played for 16 years. I knew what to do."
The first time he touched the ball, he got fouled. Then he got right back up and kept pressing forward.
Carleton is far from a finished product. All the coaches who spoke to B/R for this story said he needs to improve his decision-making and better understand the risks that come from bad turnovers after ambitious attempts. It's one thing to try a series of stepovers, fail and lose the ball 90 yards from your net; it's quite another to do it at midfield when your team lacks the defensive shape to respond. But it's a balance to infuse a bit of responsibility without discouraging the magic. "He is a strong enough personality where I feel like no one is ever going to take that away from him," Hackworth says.
His progress as a professional has been slow by design. He's made the game-day 18 only four times for the MLS club as the Atlanta coaching staff works closely with Hackworth and U.S. Soccer to ensure Carleton is not overwhelmed. (The specter of Freddy Adu and his unmet expectations still hangs over talented young Americans.) Carleton will build toward October's World Cup and then refocus his efforts on Atlanta United during preseason next year.
Of course, there are the unavoidable discussions about moving to Europe. He says he'd like to play in the Champions League one day—that it's "every professional soccer player's dream"—but unlike almost everything else in his soccer career, a trip across the pond hasn't been fast-tracked. "I grew up here," he says. "I know the city. I know the environment. I get to live at home. [It's just] being in a comfort zone but being able to play against guys who take you out of your comfort zone on the field, and who can push you to a limit."
More than any numbers he puts up this summer, Carleton's appearance on an MLS roster promises something more—that there is a path to soccer stardom for Americans if they stay home.
"One of my dreams is to show people that there's a way coming out of Atlanta and in the U.S. … I want to show people that the United States is coming along and going to be able to develop top professional soccer players," Carleton says. "To be able to show that you don't necessarily have to go to Europe at 15, 16, 17 years old to be a top-of-the-line player."
Carleton is indeed a work in progress, but he's a lot further along than most who preceded him. The day after his MLS first-team debut, Carleton posted a photo on Twitter. It shows him about to step onto the field for the first time, engulfed in an embrace from Almiron. The back of his jersey reads "Carleton," his number 30 and his red hair visible. The caption on the photo says, "Dreams no longer."
The kid made it, following a path that seems less impossible by the day. How many 10-year-olds are out there right now, ready to follow it, inspired to follow him? More than we may think.