Atlanta United is mired in some early season struggles, having won just one of its last six games. Granted, this stretch has been one of the most difficult that any MLS team could face, with trips to Seattle, Toronto and NYCFC included. To put icing on the cake, Atlanta is gifted a trip to Portland to play a dangerous Timbers side who will look to avenge its worst loss of the season last weekend at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes.
But the schedule is really not the issue with Atlanta right now. Tata Martino must help the team find a solution to get them playing in the style that we saw in the first month of the season, full of pace and movement. Over the last couple of weeks especially, Atlanta has looked toothless and disorganized. With key players that could help the team like Josef Martinez and (to a lesser degree) Jacob Peterson injured, this team needs an injection of energy and quality in the attack.
Enter Andrew Carleton. Yes, I understand that most kids his age are trying to make the JV team at their high school as opposed to challenging for a starting spot at a professional outfit. Hell, when I was his age, I entertained myself with saltine challenges, video games and blowing up anthills with firecrackers. If anyone is wary of the ills that immaturity can bring, it’s me.
But Andrew Carleton’s age shouldn’t be held against him. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. To even sniff this level of soccer at his age takes incredible amount of talent, discipline and determination. Think about what it takes to get to this level. I mean really, think about it. Think about when you played in the rec leagues as a kid and there was that one kid who dominated. Then that kid gets bumped up to the travel team with all the other kids who dominated rec ball, and he’s better than all of them, too. Then he goes to camps where he plays with the best kids from the best travel teams across the region, and he’s the best there too. Then he’s invited to the youth national setup, where once again, he’s excelling at the highest level among his age group. No one is born that good. It takes practice, hard work and experience. Carleton wasn’t simply given these opportunities, he’s earned them.
Speaking of earning opportunities, Carleton will need to work for that at Atlanta United too. To have received a contract is a huge token of respect for a player his age, but there’s a big difference in having a contract and seeing the field. To be honest though, we’re lucky to have him. Brian Sciaretta, a highly respected soccer journalist reporting on the U17 national team a few weeks ago, suggested just that.
“The Georgia native had drawn the attention of European teams but unlike many other teenage prospects he lacked a European Union passport to facilitate a move. It is unclear how much of a role that played in him signing with Atlanta United but Carleton’s signing was significant for both the club and the league.”
Common sense tells us that Carleton is good enough to be plying his trade across the pond considering he’s a standout on a national team full of players who will end up at European clubs like the 2015 team did. Despite this, I understand completely why he needs to prove himself here before he sniffs the field. It doesn’t send a great message to players who have spouses and children that this golden boy is going to step in day one and play.
But this isn’t day one, and this team needs help. Like, desperately needs help. And in Carleton, you have a player whose game is tailored to benefit the team where it currently lacks. He’s quick, energetic and skillful. While you risk team morale by playing him too early, you also risk the player’s morale if you don’t play him out of principle (for the record, I’m not claiming Martino is doing this).
Carleton has just recently returned from Panama as he helped lead the United States to qualifying for the U17 World Cup, and with a long trip to Portland coming this weekend, I don’t expect him to be making his first start. But I’d be shocked if he didn’t have a place in the 18 this weekend (assuming Peterson and Martinez are still out injured), and I hope the hometown kid can get his feet wet in a competitive match. It’s usually more difficult for players to make their debuts at home since it’s such an emotional moment and the player can lose focus tactically, so this is a perfect storm of circumstances for Martino to pull the trigger.