Caleb Wiley is about as Atlanta United as it gets.

Wiley was part of United’s inaugural crop of academy teams in 2016, competing for the club at the Under-12 level even before Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez and the rest of the first team took the pitch in the Five Stripes’ debut season the following year.

The native of Atlanta’s Morningside neighborhood had played the sport since he was 3. But having a top-flight pro team in his hometown, particularly one as bold, brash and successful out of the gates as ATLUTD, helped turbocharge his love for the game.

He worked as a ball boy at MLS Cup 2018, providing a priceless vantage point as Tata Martino’s team defeated the Portland Timbers to become league champions in front of 73,019 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – the biggest crowd in the event’s history – two weeks before Wiley’s 14th birthday.

A memory of equal potency was made two days later, as the capital of the South packed its downtown streets on a chilly December Monday to hail the team that had won its heart so quickly and stylishly.

“I got to be a part of the parade back in 2018,” recalled Wiley during a one-on-one conversation with MLSsoccer.com earlier this year. “Going through the streets of Atlanta, cheering with the fans, that was a time I’ll never forget. And I want to have that happen again.

“When I was in the academy, this is the only thing that I wanted. This was the only team that I wanted to be a part of,” he added. “I knew that it was such a big club, but I was like, ‘I don't care, I'm going to get there one day.’ And yeah, there's pressure that comes with it. But that's life; you’ve just got to deal with it.”

Caleb Wiley - ATL celebration

Atlanta roots

Wiley’s aspirations were further fueled by another key aspect of ATLUTD’s identity: The commitment to reflecting the city’s profound diversity in everything it did, from hiring to gameday atmosphere and supporter culture to the academy’s efforts to unearth talent across the region and beyond. By the time Wiley was on the development pathway, others like him had already set an example for him to follow.

“Ever since Atlanta United came to this city, it’s grown. Every person that I talk to, fans, friends, family, they say when they come to the game, it’s something that they’ve never experienced before,” said Wiley. “The impact that Atlanta United has brought to this city has been like no other.

“Growing up, to see guys that were a few years older than me making their dreams come true, it only made me feel better about mine, and made me push harder to achieve mine as well. I hope that I can inspire the kids who are younger than me the same way George Bello, George Campbell, all the homegrowns in the past did for me. That’s a goal of mine.”

A little over three years after that victory parade, he would sign his homegrown deal with the Five Stripes. A few weeks on from that milestone, he made his MLS debut, at age 17, as a substitute in ATL’s season opener – and scored their game-clinching third goal in a 3-1 victory, leaving the Wiley family, particularly his father Chris, overcome with emotion as they looked on from the stands.

Wiley generally stayed ahead of schedule ever since. Injury outbreaks forced Atlanta to give him more playing time than initially expected in ‘22, so much so that the club declined to release him for the US U-20 national team’s Concacaf qualifying tournament. He still earned a call-up for the FIFA U-20 World Cup the following May, where he scored one goal and impressed scouts as the young Yanks reached the quarterfinals.

By year’s end, he’d stacked up four goals, four assists and 19 key passes in regular-season action, ranked No. 9 on MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list, and held Atlanta’s record for most appearances by a homegrown.

“Everything has happened so quick,” Wiley told MLSsoccer.com. “Thankfully, I've had mentors and I've had teammates, I've had coaches, I've obviously had family that has always been by my side. But I think the biggest one is just having my teammates, especially the older guys who've kind of gone through it. They're more experienced, so they know what they're doing. And so to have them kind of give me advice, kind of talk to me, has been very helpful.

“I mean, there's a lot of pressure, especially when I first started out, not used to playing in front of 70,000-plus fans. So it was something that I had to adapt to. I think as games went on, I started getting more confident in myself, I started growing into my body as a player and as a person. And then came the second year and I had an idea of what the league was about. I had an idea of what other players, how they were playing. I physically got stronger, mentally got stronger.”

Caleb Wiley - ATL dramatic

Leveling up

It’s helped that Atlanta’s head coach, Gonzalo Pineda, is deeply familiar with the pathway Wiley’s on, because he walked a similar one himself two decades ago at one of Mexico’s traditional cradles of youth development.

“I was a homegrown for Pumas [UNAM], and we are very proud of that,” Pineda told MLSsoccer.com. “All these kids that came from the roots, from beneath with the U-15s, the U-17s, because they cheer for, they bleed for the badge. And what I see from Caleb is that – this passion. Of course, the amazing talent he has, but the passion and the energy and the maturity he has in his game.

“All I'm trying to do, and is my focus and my staff’s focus, is trying to guide him, to polish a couple of the things that he needs to polish to become an even better player.”

Still only 19 and now an everyday starter for ATL at left back, albeit also capable of working in a more advanced attacking position, Wiley is clearly going places. He’s already earned his first two senior caps with the US men’s national team, and projects to be a key contributor to the U-23 squad that will represent the United States at the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics for the first time in 16 years.

The visibility provided by that tournament is likely to supercharge what’s already been a steady drumbeat of transfer interest in Europe. The Athletic reported in August that bids “in the range of $5-7 million” were presented to Atlanta last summer. Transfermarkt went so far as to feverishly ponder whether Wiley could become “the next Alphonso Davies,” the Vancouver Whitecaps product now at Bayern Munich (albeit with a move to Real Madrid widely expected this summer) who represents the gold standard for MLS homegrown success stories.

With the Olympic soccer tournament running from July 24 to Aug. 10 in France, Wiley would miss a decent chunk of ATL’s midsummer slate. It still looks like a win-win for him to participate, however, between the exposure it provides for both player and club, and the lessons international soccer has already blessed him with.

“I got a little taste of it last year. I’m thankful for Atlanta United letting me go to the U-20 World Cup and missing, I think it was six games, to represent my country. So I was super blessed to have that happen,” he said. “I’m playing against guys that are the best in the world at my age, playing with and playing against. So I think just being in that environment, it helped me progress and learn every day. The World Cup is such a huge tournament that I'm really thankful to have played in. It was a feeling that I've never really felt before, because I'm representing my country at almost the highest stage.

“Whenever I get called in, and when the camp is over and I come back to my team, I always leave with so much that I've learned in those past, whether it's 10 days, whether it's a month at a World Cup. Just being around those guys that are also coming from a first-team side with lots of quality, and then we all put it in together, I'm able to leave with so much more, and I feel a lot better about myself leaving the camp.”

Caleb Wiley - ATL celebration 2

Next step

He’s also learned, just like generations of young up-and-comers before him, that the next steps are different – and quite a bit more difficult – than those he took to reach this point. Expectations have grown now that he’s a regular. Opponents have scouted his strengths and weaknesses in depth.

“Now he's not a kid for us,” noted Pineda. “He's a guy that now we can push more.”

The day-to-day grind of producing and maintaining a high level of performance is both deceptively simple and devilishly difficult.

“The consistency was the hard part, right? Because everything was new to me,” he said. “It's tough to do, because I still have so much to improve on. but just having that positive mindset of knowing you're here for a reason, right? And you're capable of being the best player you're capable of being.”

To further complicate matters, Atlanta’s solid start to the current campaign gave way to a painful eight-game winless skid that’s seen them plummet down the standings to 12th place in the Eastern Conference and 22nd in the overall league table before Saturday’s high-profile home clash with defending West champions LAFC (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

That’s dialed up the heat under Pineda’s seat dramatically, considering the scale of ATLUTD’s investment in the current squad and the expectations of a large fanbase grown agitated nearly five years on from their last major trophy. Wiley has called for patience, even as he and his colleagues recognize what a dwindling commodity that’s become in the A.

“It will come. I mean, we're creating so many chances,” he told reporters earlier this month. “And I know it's frustrating. I know it's frustrating for us, the fans, everybody watching. But the goals will come, and we’re not scared of that, because we have the talent to do that.

“We still have lots of games to go, we still have so much more to learn. And I think that's what we're all excited about. That's what I'm excited about for this team. We have so much more to do and to show everybody that, yes, we may lose a game and we might tie, but we're also learning from those games.”

Caleb Wiley - ATL pass 1

Continued growth

With the Five Stripes generally sticking with a 4-2-3-1 shape, Wiley’s had less license to bomb forward than in past situations where a three-man defense gave him a more end-to-end tasking as a wingback, particularly in light of his right-sided counterpart Brooks Lennon’s eagerness to join the attack. That’s prompted him to focus on subtler details of his craft that might be less thrilling in the short term, but useful for his long-range prospects.

“I think I've improved on the defending part,” he said. “This year I’ve played more of a defensive position, so I think that's something I've improved on, with the 1v1 duels. Continuing on the attacking side, [I have to be] cleaner in my crosses. With this position now, I'm not having as many opportunities as maybe last year playing that left wingback role, so this year I’ve got to make sure when I do cross, I’ve got to connect it.

“Now I'm a bit deeper, part of the back line. But I still get the freedom to get upfield and make overlaps, be a part of the attacking third, be creative up there. I’ve just got to pick and choose my times to go.”

This all meshes with the priorities Pineda has identified, which he presents to Wiley as valuable for both his individual ambitions and the benefit of the collective.

“He needs to be better defensively, picking and choosing better the timings to go forward and making sure those count,” said Pineda. “As a fullback, especially if you want to be in the national team, you have to be first a good defender, most of all. Because most of the moments in international duties are transitional – it’s a lot of open games, right? And you face sometimes the best wingers in the world, and you need to be up to that task defensively: being good in your aerial duels, you’re defending the crosses on the far post, defending 1v1 situations, blocking crosses, blocking shots.

“So we need to demand that from our fullbacks, especially Caleb, if he wants to succeed on the national team or even Europe at some point. So that's our goal. And then I think offensively, he has a special gift. I think he sees gaps very often, good quality in the final third, good speed. So it's just about timing.”

Clever timing will also be pivotal for Wiley’s next career move. If he can find a strong run of form at club level and seize the opportunity of the Olympics, he’ll have ample options for making the leap abroad, be it during the summer window or next winter. The latter might be his personal preference, going by his desire to give his city another taste of glory before he leaves.

“I always just try to leave that to the side and when it comes the time, then I’ll really look at what options I have. But I try to just focus on where I am right now, which is Atlanta,” Wiley said. “I want to win a trophy here.

“I love Atlanta so much,” he added. “They deserve another trophy and so that's my goal, that's what I want.”

Caleb Wiley - ATL dramatic shot