Caleb Wiley was just shy of his 14th birthday when he witnessed Atlanta United win its first Major League Soccer Cup in front of a record-breaking crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was Dec. 8, 2018, and he was a ball boy for Atlanta United. The expansion team with just two seasons under its belt defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 for the title.
Caleb, now 17, watched more than 70,000 fans explode into cheers for the home team. He saw the excitement on the faces of the players and coaches. The energy in the stadium hummed through his body. He knew professional soccer was his calling.
“I got to be on the field and experience that feeling of winning,” he recalls. “I wasn’t a player at the time, so I didn’t know how it felt to actually win it. But after seeing that happen, it was like, wow! I wanted to be in their shoes, I wanted to be doing that, playing in front of 70,000-plus fans.”
Caleb got his start in soccer while growing up in Morningside. He and a group of friends played football, basketball, baseball, and soccer together at area parks and at school.
But when he was a fourth grader at Morningside Elementary School, Caleb felt a pull to focus on soccer.
“Well, for one, I think I was better at it,” he says with a chuckle. “But on days when I had no training, I found myself going out and training by myself and playing soccer. And that’s when the love for it really grew.”
Caleb is making long strides toward realizing his dream of playing professional soccer in front of tens of thousands of people.
Last month he signed a four-year Homegrown contract with Atlanta United. Days later he was in Mexico running drills and playing in practice games with his new teammates ahead of the Feb. 27 season opener at the Benz against Kansas City.
“It’s a lot different because I’m used to spending time with my family and with teammates that are my age and now I’m spending time with guys that have a family,” he says.
“That’s pretty crazy to think about,” he adds. “They give me advice and I’ve learned from them and it’s been a great time getting to know all of them.”
Caleb is known as a “Homegrown” player because he started playing in the Atlanta United Academy when he was 11. The academy is a youth development program designed to train future Atlanta United team members.
Caleb shined enough on the field during academy play he was called up in 2020 and 2021 to play for Atlanta United’s reserve team, Atlanta United 2. The reserve team competes in the United Soccer League, a professional league just below Major League Soccer. The reserve team is also part of Atlanta United’s structure to produce more MLS players.
Caleb was 15 when he made his debut for Atlanta United 2, making him the youngest player in club history to play professionally.
Being the youngest on the field once intimidated him, but no longer. “Age is just a number,” he says. “Now I just go out and do my thing.”