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SSFC Spotlight: Caleb Wiley is dominating Major League Soccer

The teenager is putting on a show in Atlanta.

SOCCER: MAR 18 MLS - Atlanta United FC vs Portland Timbers Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The United States Under-20 Men’s National Team is building towards the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup in May, recently calling up a 20-player squad that is in Argentina for a training camp. However, as part of the excursion occurs outside of the international window, there are a few absences from the group. One notable omission is Caleb Wiley of Atlanta United, who is marked as one of Major League Soccer’s top young prospects. The 18-year-old fullback has already earned Player of the Matchday honors and stood out for his attacking abilities in his secondary role as a winger.

Born in Atlanta, Wiley competed with Decatur-Dekalb YMCA Soccer Club and joined the Atlanta United academy at 11 years old, “a member of the club’s inaugural U-12 team.” He progressed through the ranks and was promoted to the reserve level in 2020, the “youngest player in club history to appear in a professional game.” In addition, the developing prospect competed with the U-19 side in the Premier Division of the United Premier Soccer League, reaching the final.

In his first USL Championship season, Wiley made 11 appearances, starting every match at left back or left midfielder and leading the team in pass interceptions. The next year, he featured in 22 fixtures and contributed two assists for the reserves, “growing into a much more imposing defender.” The league twice named him to the Team of the Week. Dirty South Soccer cited him as the most pro-ready talent, having displayed “speed, grit, polish, and poise” well beyond his years, favorably comparing him to George Bello, another Atlanta academy product who made the jump to Europe.

In January of 2022, the club signed him to a Homegrown player contract through 2025 with an option for 2026. “He has all the ingredients needed to have a very good career,” said head coach Gonzalo Pineda. “But obviously we’re going to take it step by step, so he can build a good base that allows him to have a long career. It’s very easy to give players a chance to debut, but it’s more difficult to turn them into great players, and that’s my mission with him.”

Wiley came off the bench on Opening Day, scoring the insurance goal in a 3-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City, latching onto a through ball and out-sprinting the opponent. He continued to make sporadic appearances and dealt with minor injury issues, improving his one-on-one defending and movement. In June, the wide player assumed a role in the starting lineup, which was held for the next 16 matches, at times moving up to winger. His play was one of the bright spots during a dismal season for Atlanta that saw the club miss the playoffs for the second time in three years.

Wiley began 2023 on the right foot, starting all four matches. His potential coming-out party came in a 3-0 victory over Charlotte FC, in which he scored a brace and contributed an assist. MLS named him Player of the Matchday and included him on the Team of the Matchday, a unique honor considering his deployment outside of his natural fullback position.

Following up on his superlative performance, Wiley added another goal and assist in a 5-1 demolition of the Portland Timbers. His routine finish came on a quick counter-attack, but the helper was a well-played cross that perfectly floated over the head of the defender. The league once again named him to the Team of the Matchday. He already may not be long for MLS, as “a number of European clubs are seriously interested” in his services.

“I hoped that those two goals he scored against Charlotte put a little more confidence and belief in himself, and today he showed that he’s doing that,” said Pineda after the win over Portland. “I think you still haven’t seen the full package of Caleb Wiley. I still think he has many things to prove out there and I hope this is the season where he has a lot more goals and assists.”

At the international level, Wiley has received sporadic call-ups, appearing at the UEFA Development Tournament in 2020. He participated in the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Revelations Cup and was on the preliminary roster for last summer’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship. An invitation to the ongoing U-20 camp was declined by Atlanta United, but the U-20 World Cup looms on the horizon.

Primarily a left back who takes an advanced position high up the field, Wiley is a pacy, committed dribbler and accurate crosser while possessing “superb defensive abilities.” He is among MLS’ best in “shot-creating actions” and works hard to block opponents’ attempts. Chasing a Cup praises his “well-rounded game,” noting a “good physical profile” and technical ability with “high-level passing ability” and effective off-ball movement.

Football Talent Scout compared him to Portuguese fullback Nuno Mendes of Paris Saint-Germain, rating his potential an eight out of ten with the ability to compete for a top European club. “[He is a] player with very good body mass ratio, physical strength, power, stamina, and natural fitness who feels comfortable in contact situations,” wrote Jacek Kulig. “[He has] very good agility and coordination for a player of his size and likes to dribble... [He is] a vertical player who’s always looking to push on at every opportunity, offering dynamic overlapping runs into advanced positions... [He brings] endless energy and his powerful running make him an incredibly useful asset as he brings an offensive value to a team, with a lot of activity during 90 minutes.”

Based on his current form, Wiley appears to be a lock for the upcoming U-20 World Cup and should be one of the youngest players on the roster. The United States program is currently overflowing with fullbacks, but additions to the depth chart are always welcome to challenge the existing options. The modern game requires two-way wing defenders, and his skillset and burgeoning production could push him into contention for the senior squad. Time will tell if his future lies even further up the formation as a dynamic winger.