By James Nalton, Football Whispers
Andrew Carleton was Atlanta United's first homegrown, way back in 2016 before the club had even made their first steps in Major League Soccer.
He was sent to the new club’s affiliate side Charleston Battery where he made his first professional appearance in USL Championship before returning to Atlanta for their inaugural MLS season in 2017.
The 18-year-old has long been considered one of the brightest talents of his age group, and though he has found first team football difficult to come by, he is still viewed as a player with big potential.
The latest in our series on the rising stars of United States soccer takes a look at the Georgian, who is hoping to progress through the ranks at this relatively high profile and successful MLS side.
Who is Andrew Carleton?
While looking at who Carleton is, it might also be worth examining why he is different to some of the other rising stars in this series.
Fans like to see a home grown talent prevail, regardless of who they support. These are the players they often identify with most and help the clubs they play for retain an identity unique to their area of the world.
MLS high flyers Atlanta United have a unique identity which revolves around the South American flavour in their squad, spearheaded by outgoing head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who has launched the club as far as a second place finish in the league and an MLS Cup final within two seasons.
The fans at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium also contribute to this identity and – like many of the best supported South American clubs – make sure Atlanta United have the most pronounced homefield advantage regardless of which opposition are coming to town.
The tifos, the atmosphere, and the regular big turnouts have made sure that this expansion franchise is not just another MLS side making up the numbers and ticking a box.
What they don’t have, yet, is a homegrown star, and this is where they hope Carleton will come in.
This is one of the most difficult things for a soccer club to achieve, and even the world’s best such as FC Barcelona (in recent years at least), FC Bayern, Manchester City and Juventus struggle to bring local players from their own academy into the first team, often looking elsewhere for the best young talent.
MLS clubs are encouraged to bring through homegrown players after the league altered the rules in 2008 meaning that Homegrown Players (now with capital letters) were given special status and, to cut a long story – and a lot of rules and regulations – short, are allowed to come straight from a club's academy into their first team.
To further encourage clubs to produce their own talent, MLS teams can now keep 100 per cent of the fee received if they sell a Homegrown Player.
But Carleton has some way to go before he attracts the type of interest received by his team-mates, and other young MLS stars such as Canadian Alphonso Davies who left for Bayern this winter.
Along with goalkeeper Alec Kann, Carleton is the true homegrown hope at this club. Born in the nearby Powder Springs he’s not just from the state of Georgia, but almost from Atlanta itself.
He played youth football for the Georgia United Soccer Alliance, which then became Atlanta United’s youth academy. From there he has progressed to the verge of the first team, but he’s not quite made it to the starting XI. Yet.
Carleton’s lack of minutes at first-team level mean reliable data is difficult to come by, but he has played a number of games in the USL Championship this season.
This league has become a cross between a developmental/reserve division for MLS sides, as well as a professional league for clubs outside of MLS such as Carleton’s former club, Charleston Battery.
He faced his old team three times this season, and in the most recent fixture he assisted both goals in a 2-1 victory for Atlanta United 2.
They were his first assists of the season, adding to two goals scored earlier in the campaign.
As luck would have it, Atlanta’s first team were also drawn against Charleston in the US Open Cup, Carleton scoring with an impressive strike from outside the area as his side won 3-0.
Though the senior appearances have been few and far between, he did assist a Josef Martínez goal against Vancouver Whitecaps early in the season, but we can get a much better idea of what type of player he is from his scout report.
Carleton is a probing attacking midfield playmaker who can operate through the middle or from out wide, and is able to chip in with goals.
He has made many appearances this season from the left, and played a lot of his youth football on either flank, but could eventually settle in the centre.
Positionally, and possibly in mindset too, he may be similar to the likes of existing MLS star Ignacio Piatti, and even a few of the South American creators in his own side such as Miguel Almirón and Ezequiel Barco. In stature he’s closer to the latter, at 1.71m.
A right-footer, he has good touch and an eye for a pass, both long and short. You watch his performances for the reserve team and even if he may not be on top form there is always a hint of something special, making it clear why he’s so highly regarded by many in the game.
From back-heeled through-balls to neat turns in midfield, he has flair to match his technical ability, and if he can maintain the confidence he can be a player who pulls all the strings for his side.
He can press from the front, dribble around defenders, take set pieces, and keep it neat and tidy if his side need to keep possession.
International - USMNT
Carleton has been a part of the United States Men's National Team setup since the age of 14, and was a regular scorer at under-17 level during 2016.
He has long been on the radar of those who oversee this level of soccer in the US, and he appeared for his country in the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, starting every game as US reached the quarter-finals, making three assists and scoring twice.
As a nation currently producing a number of potentially defensive and central midfielders such as Tyler Adams, all-rounder Weston McKennie, and Chris Durkin, the USMNT will need a creative spark to build on the hard work. Carleton, perhaps?
Atlanta are likely to lose Almirón this off-season, and though they have South American replacements lined up, it would be good to see Carleton introduced on a more regular basis next year.
He needs a lot to go his way in order to get an opportunity, and a lot could depend on who replaces Martino as coach and how eager they are to bring a homegrown player into the first team.
He will remain in the national team picture, but whether he gets to use his creativity to paint on the canvas depends on a number of factors which youth players across the country, and the world, are battling with.
The natural talent is there and, though he has a certain amount of time on his side, Atlanta fans will be hoping that one of their own can shine in MLS and on the international stage sooner rather than later.
They already love him for where he is from, they'll soon love him for his soccer too.