Caleb Wiley took the world by storm in 2021. After a strong debut with Atlanta United 2 in 2020, Wiley became one of the youngest regular starters in the USL - Championship in addition to becoming one of the American second division’s best left-backs.
In 2022, Wiley began his first MLS preseason camp as a Homegrown player and as the potential successor to fellow academy product George Bello. He had just turned 17 after high-profile call-ups for the US U-20s against Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, and hoped to challenge in-coming veteran left-back, Andrew Gutman, for the starting left-back spot. Little could Wiley have predicted the strange turn of events that would push his development a full year ahead of schedule.
Minutes: 1497 (26 matches played, 18 starts)
What went right?
Wiley had a massive year, developmentally. In the season preview, I predicted (incorrectly) that Wiley would be a spot starter, an occasional sub on the wing, and used primarily in US Open Cup and other non-MLS competitions. I predicted that he would spend most of his time continuing to develop with the 2s as the starter at left-back. Fate had other plans.
Andrew Gutman’s injury at the end of May created both a golden opportunity and a real dilemma for Wiley. Wiley was coming off of an ankle injury that had sidelined him for a month and had just received an invitation to represent the US at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship alongside Tyler Wolff. Now, with the club gutted at left-back, Wiley became the de facto starter.
Over the next 21 matches, Wiley had 16 starts and 20 appearances to become a regular in Gonzalo Pineda’s lineup. As a left-back, Wiley used his speed to help advance the ball as the open man running at defenders. While most of his own passes were lateral or backward, he used his impressive dribbling ability to great effect. Despite collecting only 1 assist, Wiley is credited with creating 4 goals while also creating an additional 44 shot-creating actions. This is consistent the with club’s high overall production of shots and goal-scoring opportunities that failed to convert.
What to improve on?
If you look at his detailed stats, we see a player who is playing strong defense and doing the hard work to create opportunities for his team but the passing is what consistently lets him down. Some of that is decision making and some of that is chemistry. One core truth about Caleb Wiley is that he is resilient and he is a good student. There are three main areas I’d like to see Wiley improve on going into the 2023 season.
On the attacking end, Wiley has a superb ability to attack the end line or his opponent and make a dangerous cross into space. Unfortunately, he didn’t take advantage of this enough and often deferred to his older (and more expensive teammates) when they demanded the ball. I want to see Wiley own his zone of the pitch and be a constant threat of crossing and shooting from around the left side of the box.
On the defensive end, I hope that after a season of playing in MLS, Wiley has a better feel for the speed of the game and what it takes to be the kind of lockdown defender he was in the USL in 2021. Wiley has the speed, grit, and tenacity to be a highly skilled two-way fullback or wingback. He also has the height to be better at challenging for balls in the air than the stats showed in 2022. Going into 2023, I want to see Wiley and his managers unlock that strong defensive potential and force Gonzalo Pineda into making tough lineup positions every match.
What role will he play in 2023?
The U-20 World Cup may impact how the club approaches Wiley’s role in the first half of the season. After becoming a regular at camps and call-ups, Wiley may earn a seat on the plane to Indonesia to represent the United States. This tournament will last from May 20th to June 11th, immediately preceding FIFA’s second international window in mid-June. That could mean missing a minimum of 4 matches with the club.
With Andrew Gutman set to also return in 2023 and the club signing Edwin Mosquera in the summer window as a U-22 player, Wiley will have competition for minutes on the left flank. Pineda seems to still believe in the youngster so Wiley will likely continue to be used in a hybrid role on the left flank to get his speed on the field. Wiley showed strong potential when playing in an advanced role on the wing in his first season in MLS so the club may choose to bring him on as a late-gate speedster or as a platoon option for Gutman.
If Wiley impresses at the U-20 World Cup and has a strong second half of the 2023 season, he could be heading to Europe soon after his 19th birthday.
Overall Player Grade: B
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