Size of the fight in the dog: Andrew Carleton on road to professional stardom

Andrew Carleton embraced the moment during his MLS debut in a 4-1 victory against the Houston Dynamo on May 20 (Atlanta United Communications Staff).

TWO HOURS WORTH of training passed when time came to a sudden pause.

“Dude, I need to get a haircut,” Garvin Quamina, the developmental coach, exclaimed to his pupil Andrew Carleton.

But the then 11-year-old Carleton — whose rising soccer star saw Atlanta United’s teen midfielder recently suit up for the MLS Homegrown Team —  knew that it would be time for school if they called it quits, so he decided to cut a deal with his trainer. Quamina could leave for his haircut while his pupil stayed behind and resumed training. It seemed reasonable to Quamina, knowing he probably wouldn’t be gone for too long. After his appointment the coach came back to the field, fully expecting to see Carleton wiped out and ready to go home.

In fact, it was the complete opposite.

Music blared from Carleton’s phone while he took shot after shot with his shirt off as the sizzling sun warmed his back. It was as if Quamina never left. He repeatedly blasted soccer balls into the net, retrieved them — even if they sailed over the crossbar — and returned to his spot to do it all over again.

Quamina simply observed from inside his car, waiting 30 more minutes while Andrew continued to practice. He was amazed. They had trained for so long beforehand, and yet the intensity with which Carleton worked remained the same.

“What you’re seeing right now is the byproduct of that,” Quamina said. “He will not stop working.”

THE SCORE WAS LEVELED, 2-2, in the backyard of the Carletons’ Powder Springs, Ga., home. The next goal was the winner.

The stakes were non-existent, but there was no telling that to Andrew Carleton. He made it his business to beat whoever he played, even if that meant taking on his trainer, who sported a size 12 shoe.

Carleton sprinted up the field, screaming for the ball from one of his younger sisters and Quamina — in position to defend him as the ball skirted across the yard — opted to employ some gamesmanship.

“I’m getting in his head,” Quamina said. “Trying to get in his head, trying to get him accustomed with people talking crap. I developed him not just as a player, but the mind and everything else, and I’m getting in his head and getting in his head.”

The ball was short. Quamina opened to intercept the incompleted pass, but while he opened his feet a head soared across his receiving foot. A head comprised of long, red hair headed the ball away from Quamina’s foot and into the back of the net.

Quamina stood there in shock as Carleton darted to the corner, threw his shirt off and slid across the grass in celebration.

“I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Quamina warned. “‘I’m going to kick your head off.’”

“It’s in the back of the net,” Carleton responded gleefully. “You lose. You lose.”

To the Carletons, it was a common occurrence. Sometimes it resulted in one of Andrew’s brothers or sisters leaving the backyard in tears because they lost. It was all in good nature, but without question, it was competitive.

It underscores the eldest child’s drive and it wasn’t limited to games.

“He was juggling really well on a vacation in Florida and his mom texts me, ‘110,'” Quamina said. “I said, ‘Well done. Tell him I can beat that and we can do it on Wednesday.’ 12 hours later she said, ‘116.’ I said, ‘Well done. I can do that with my back and my left foot.’ And because I keep saying that he will go into the backyard because he can’t let me beat him at anything. He will compete until the end.”

There’s a fire about Andrew Carleton. It’s in the way he conducts himself on the field, with his teammates, and yes, with his family. “That’s one thing that separates me from most U.S. soccer players,” Carleton said. “It’s just that bit of confidence and flare that I can bring to the game.”

Now 17, Andrew is the oldest of five siblings. He has two sisters, Erin and Coco, and two brothers, Alan and John. They all share the same passion for the game of soccer as their parents, John and Michelle, whose overarching goal was to make sure each had the same attention and the same ability to be able to have access to training and teaching.

“The first word that comes to mind is sacrifice,” Michelle said. “And it hasn’t just been a sacrifice for Andrew, but for everybody.”

From the left: Siblings Coco, Andrew, Erin, John and Alan Carleton as part of the “Home Team” in a summer three-on-three tournament. (via John and Michelle Carleton)

Those small sided tournaments over the years helped give the Carletons a chance to keep the family together. More so, it allowed all the kids to cheer on their siblings on the sidelines. There was also an instance when they all played together on the same team.

The Carletons were each other’s opposition in those backyard games, but those moments were also about cheering each other on, and that was never more evident than when siblings were teammates in a three-on-three tournament. They were called Home Team.

All the Carletons played an age level up so that they could play side-by-side and Home Team took home first place hardware.

Soccer has and continues to bring a lot of good to this family.

“Just being a dad, I got to coach [Andrew] a lot in small sided stuff,” his father, John, said. “The game of soccer has been such a wonderful teacher and gives us lots of places to learn life lessons. We can always channel back through soccer.”

Being homeschooled, Andrew had more time to dedicate towards training … but school was always there on the other side.

“His mother always reminded him it doesn’t matter if you’re going to stay out here for three or four hours and escape school,” Quamina said. “We have school waiting for you.”

Michelle — considered the glue of the operation — played an immense role in allowing Andrew to overwhelm his life with soccer. More time was allotted to his training sessions due to homeschool, of course. There wasn’t a restriction as to how long Andrew could stay out and train as long as he received the proper amount of rest and studied as much as his mother required of him.

The oldest Carleton was only the beginning. Alan, plays for Atlanta United’s U-12s; his sister, Erin, is part of the U.S. U-15 Girl’s National Team and plays for the Concords academy team; and then his other brother and sister play as well. Essentially, the game has become part of the family’s fabric.

“I think the kids are remarkably positive,” John said. “They treat [Andrew] like a king, but he’ll treat each kid like a king. He spends his free time with them. He goes out there and plays with them and works with them and does non-soccer things with them. They wear his jersey with great pride.”

ANDREW WAS 11-YEARS-OLD when he crossed paths with Quamina. There was something different about him, something that caught Quamina’s attention that he hadn’t witnessed in any other individual.

His club at the time, then-Cobb FC lost an opening game in a regular tournament competition, but later won another game to propel them into the finals. Carleton struck first and gave his team a 1-0 lead, but their opponents eventually overcame the one-goal deficit and sent Andrew and his teammates home.

“All the kids at the end of the game, they were high fiving and all that,” Quamina said. “Went to go play Xbox or head to the pool and (Carleton) was just ticked off. Like he couldn’t get (it). (Like) ‘Why the hell would I go play Xbox, I mean we just lost?’ That’s the moment, you know what I mean? That’s a different kind of animal.”

Following the game, he approached Andrew’s mother. It was an exchange as straightforward as:

“You mind if I work with him?” Quamina asked.

“Sure, take him,” Michelle answered.

“It was wonderful,” Michelle recalls. “I think John and I both realized that we thought that Andrew was really talented. Having someone else see him and want to train with him was special.”

Andrew’s mentor has sent pupils on to play collegiately and internationally in Mexico or even Spain’s La Liga. Players of all ages would go to Quamina two or three days a week, some even on top of their separate club sessions. But among that long list of students, Carleton continues to stand out.

Quamina would drop his kids off at school and head to the fields with Carleton. In the mornings, they would train one-on-one and in the evening, he’d have Carleton train with older players. Quamina thought Carleton’s skillset so astounding he initially had him work with his under-15s. Then when Andrew turned 12, he trained with Quamina’s 18-year-old students.

“One time a guy said to me, ‘Why do you work that guy?’” Quamina said of Carleton, who Atlanta United lists at 5-foot-7, 145 pounds. “‘He’s so small, he’ll never grow. His parents are small.’ And Andrew heard that. He heard that. So I told the guy, ‘Don’t worry, one day you’ll buy a ticket to see him play.’”

Andrew with his younger sister, Erin, during a summer camp. (via John and Michelle Carleton)

Carleton has played with older guys the majority of his life — and he has thrived in those situations because of them. The level of competition, like it is now as he plays among men twice his age at the MLS level, powered him.

“It’s definitely a difference between two or three years and 10, 15 years,” said Carleton, who made his Atlanta United debut May 20 against Houston. “The level is definitely way higher than you’ve played in before. So there’s challenges but the more you do it and the more you play and stuff like that you grow out of I guess you could say .. and you get more comfortable with the environment.”

Recalls Quamina of watching Carleton in those settings against older players: “That’s why he’s so tough right now. That’s why you can hit him in the back and he’ll jump up. He’s tough.”

It’s hardened and molded him, but soccer wasn’t the first sport to show Carleton he’d need to overcome his stature.

Baseball consumed Andrew’s life for about half of a season. John was a huge fan of the sport, but it simply wasn’t Andrew’s thing. Instead, Andrew wanted to play football, though as John quips “around our house we don’t really grow big enough to play football. So I don’t think we’ve ever been worried about his size on a soccer field because I think that was the consensus we made. We’re not big enough to play with those monsters who put pads on.”

Despite his experimenting, Andrew’s dream has been to play professional soccer. Period. It was only reaffirmed — through his skills and parental support — as he narrowed his focus on soccer.

“If I wanted to play baseball or football,” Andrew said, “(My parents) would let me do that and chase the dream with me. I wanted to play soccer and they did everything that they possibly could to fulfill this journey, so we’re here today.”

Andrew is Atlanta United’s first Homegrown Player in the team’s inaugural season. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s not necessarily his ability to dribble or pass that sets Carleton apart. It’s his timing. His ability to create chances. The tenacity to predict the next move. Carleton’s ability to take control of a game stands above those who may dribble extensively or pass on a dime. Affecting the game in some form of action is his prerogative.

Then there are times when a one touch is required and Andrew will make that decision. Or when the chance comes to take on an opponent one-on-one.

One time a guy said to me, ‘Why do you work that guy? He’s so small, he’ll never grow. His parents are small.’ … I told the guy, ‘Don’t worry, one day you’ll buy a ticket to see him play.’

Garvin Quamina

“There’s no question that he works extremely hard at his craft,” said U.S. U-17 men’s national team coach John Hackworth said. “He knows he has a lot more to do. But when you have that attitude, he comes to work or play and comes with a smile. That’s a pretty easy recipe for improvement.”

His style of play and his drive to be great outweighed any perceived limitations based on his stature and he shred up the field, unafraid to challenge defenders. Along the way, Quamina recollects people wondering: How was the little American kid able to do everything he was doing on the field at such a young age at such a high level?

“He sees the game two, three, four steps ahead,” Quamina said. “No one believed he was American. Like a guy said, ‘You sure he’s not German? He looks German. Or could he be Dutch?’ Nope. Good ol’ United States of America.”

Carleton led Atlanta United’s U-15/16’s to a national title, the first trophy for the club. (Michael Janosz-ISI Photos)

WHEN ANDREW MET HACKWORTH, he made an interesting choice that caught his attention.

“The first time I ever met him was at a U-15 camp,” Hackworth said. “He’s getting the ball on the other side of the field and at the last second he jumps up and he turns his back to the ball. The ball comes off his back and he concentrated passing it that way.”

“It was ridiculous. He had a break away kind of and he instead decides to take it off his back. For him, trying that in front of me in the very first session that we had kind of epitomizes his attitude towards what he feels is really important in the game.”

Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo once completed a skillful off-the -back pass in an El Clásico game with La Liga rivals Barcelona. It was that exact pass that led Andrew to fancy his own.

“A kid that literally has the courage to do something that’s not really the smartest thing in national team stuff,” Hackworth continued. “And then to have the answer that, ‘I did it because I wanted to try it and that’s the way I am.’”

Carleton led Atlanta United’s U-15/16’s youth academy team to a national title in July, the first trophy collected in the club’s inaugural season, taking down defending champ FC Dallas.

He scored two goals in the finale, one off a freekick, while the other was on volley that may have just well been from 25-yards out.

United defender and teammate, Greg Garza shares a familiar background with the forward coming up through a youth academy, but that was internationally and the Texas native began his senior career in Mexico.

Carleton does have experience overseas, competing in Italy with Manchester City in a tournament that featured youth squads from clubs such as Chelsea and Ajax.  But lacking a European Union passport put any discussions of Andrew beginning a career in Europe on hold.

But their loss has been Atlanta’s gain.

“I wish I was in his shoes when I was 16-years-old man,” Garza said, “Playing against U-16’s and looks like he’s playing against nine-year-olds. But I think sky’s the limit, I think from what I’ve seen them play I think that’s the best U-17 team that the U.S. has ever had.”

At one of Andrew’s first national team camps they were divided up into groups. From there, they got all the participants and mixed them around as they played. Over the course of the week, they eventually played with everybody.

And a coach came up to Andrew and wondered something…

“He says, ‘You know, I’m kind of reviewing my notes,’” Hackworth said. “‘And you were in the winning group almost every time and why is that?’ And Andrew said, ‘I’m a winner. It’s what I do.’ I really think that competition, the ability to rise to the occasion, that’s absolutely in his DNA.”

AndrewCarleton was greeted by Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almirón at midfield before the teen stepped onto the pitch for the first time as an MLS player. (via @andrewcarleton7)

JUNE 9, 2016. That was the day Carleton signed with Atlanta United as the club’s first Homegrown Player. Predominantly, a winger or forward, he has also seen time as a midfielder. He initially joined USL affiliate Charleston Battery and at 16, became the youngest player to ever debut in the league.

He has also been featured at the U.S. U-15 to U-18 MNT levels, but is currently with the U-17’s. He received his first international call up back in Sept. 2013.

“He’s a player who has all the characteristics that he needs to be successful soccer-wise and mentally,” Atlanta United head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino said through an interpreter. “He’s still young and still a project, but we have very high expectations that he’s going to develop into a good player.”

European interest speculated in large part due to Carleton’s time spent with Manchester City. That short stint was a test to see where Andrew was at in his development in an environment he wasn’t used to. The experience only benefitted his progression.

“I don’t think we’re going to keep him here,” Quamina remembers saying at the time. “I think this is just a stepping stone for him. He will go out there in Europe and do bigger and better things because they will recognize he really belongs and I think he’s going to open the door. And I think he’s going to smash the door open for other U.S. players.”

Quamina has had players he’s worked with call and say they want to meet Andrew. They want to meet the Andrew Carleton, who is setting his sights on being at the forefront of U.S. soccer’s future.

“That’s his dream to represent his country,” Quamina said. “It’s an honor. There’s no shame to always put that at the forefront.”

As for his pro dreams, May 20, 2017 marked the day Andrew finally got to step in those professionally deemed shoes for the very first time.

As the final minutes ticked away in Atlanta United’s 4-1 win over Houston at Bobby Dodd Stadium — game in which All-Star midfielder Miguel Almirón had a hat trick —  an assistant  coach wrapped his shoulder around Carleton for a split second to wish him well and give him final instructions.

The teen jogged to the center of the pitch, kneeled on the ground, with his elbow gently laying on his knee and crossed with the other arm. He was relishing the moment. When he was ready, he rose up and the center referee slowly brought the sub board over his head. Number 30 was highlighted in green while Almirón’s No. 10 glared red.

His name echoed throughout the old stadium as the crowd saluted the Georgia born player, chanting. “He’s one of our own! He’s one of our own! He’s one of our own!”

Almirón embraced and shared a message of his own before exiting the pitch and Carleton sprinted onto the field ready to do his part. He made his presence known on the field and locked down defender and USMNT sensation, DaMarcus Beasley at the opposing corner flag.

My thing was I wanted to be able to show that you can develop a world class player here in the United States.

Andrew Carleton

“I think I still probably watch that video at least once a week,” John said. “And when I watch it, I’ll watch it again and again.”

“Emotional wreck,” Michelle says. “I watched it a bazillion times and I can still feel the joy and excitement like it was yesterday.”

The soccer journey of Andrew Carleton has taken him through 49 states and 11 countries and provided a stage as one of the nation’s top young talents … and with Atlanta United, well, he sees an opportunity to reach a whole new level.

“I think especially here in Atlanta it’s set up perfectly,” he said. To be put in front of 45,000 people every week and under a coach like Martino, it can push you to be a world class player or a top notch U.S. national team player.”