With Atlanta United FC holding a 4-0 lead over Houston late in Saturday night’s match, the time just seemed right for Andrew Carleton to make his MLS debut. The nearly 17-year-old Cobb County native and the team’s first homegrown signing found himself in the 18 for only the second time this season - the first time coming on April 8 against Toronto FC.
At 3-0 and 4-0 quickly after that, there was absolutely no way back for the Dynamo, allowing Tata Martino to dip into his 18 to let Miguel Almiron come off to a loud ovation and Carleton come in for his first professional appearance. Martino said afterwards that he opted to put Carleton in at that moment since it was a low pressure situation for the youngster, which was the right call as opposed to throwing him into a 2-0 match with Houston still having enough time to mount a comeback and salvage a road point.
With his first appearance out of the way, that should open Carleton up to more playing time. But how much should we expect to see of him, exactly? He is definitely a skilled player - as we saw in the preseason and specifically against Chattanooga FC - however, that’s to be taken with a grain of salt since it was a non-competitive match against an amateur side. Against players in his age group, he was solid in the CONCACAF U-17 Championship, scoring in the final classification match against Cuba in a 6-2 rout and getting the U.S. on the board with a well-timed blast against Mexico in the final.
Even his brief Saturday night appearance showed great promise, as he made a nice run toward the attacking third with DaMarcus Beasley eventually catching up to him. As a point of reference, Beasley made his professional debut in 2000, the year Carleton was born.
Carleton’s skill has been on display for sure, but he’s still young and rushing him into the Atlanta lineup could stunt his growth and development. Nights like Saturday are perfect: matches where the outcome isn’t in doubt as you look to turn to your substitutes and give first-team players a chance to rest. Then, as he grows into the game toward the midpoint of the season, give him some more important minutes. That way, he can figure significantly into the action and be ready to make that much more of an impact in 2018 - and could even end up scoring a goal or two before the season’s up.
One perfect opportunity for Carleton to increase his stock with the club is coming up on June 14: United’s U.S. Open Cup fourth-round matchup against the USL’s Charleston Battery in Kennesaw. With a pair of league contests on the other side of it (June 10 at the Chicago Fire and June 17 at home versus Columbus Crew SC), we’re sure to see Atlanta’s relative “B” team on the field to keep the first-team players match fit. I’d be stunned to not see Carleton feature in a starting XI that - even with regulars like Yamil Asad, Greg Garza, Tito Villalba and Alec Kann potentially not seeing the field that night - should still be skilled enough to match up well against its second-division foe.
While he may not be on the level of a Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund and the U.S. men’s national team or an Alphonso Davies up at Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Andrew Carleton is a young talent whose potential should excite Atlanta United fans. The club certainly bet big on the fact that he will be a star for them in the near future, and with the right training and nurturing, he can enjoy success on both the domestic and international stages.