Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley, No. 26, dribbles the ball during the second half of the match against NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 9. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta United)

The ink was barely dry on Caleb Wiley’s homegrown contract with Atlanta United when he made his Major League Soccer debut in front of nearly 70,000 fans packed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

What a debut it was.

The 17-year-old from Morningside raced onto the pitch toward the end of the Feb. 27 season opener against Sporting Kansas City. Atlanta United was in the lead, 2 to 1. Minutes later, Wiley scored his first MLS goal, sealing his team’s victory.

“I still can’t believe it,” said Wiley. “It happened so quick. And, like, in the moment I was just sort of starstruck.”

The roar of the crowd including his family and friends was deafening. Wiley, who came up through the Atlanta United Academy and signed with the pro club six weeks earlier, was living his dream.

“It was definitely one of the most amazing times in my life,” he said. “Scoring my first goal in my debut in front of so many important people was just so special to me. And it’s something that I will never forget the rest of my life.”

The Five Stripes went on to win several more games. Then several key players suffered season-ending injuries and the team’s future became bleak. The team finished 11th in its conference and failed to make the playoffs.

A bright spot this year for Atlanta United was Wiley. The rookie was quickly moved up the roster with so many teammates out. He played 26 out of 34 games with 18 starts, totaling more than 1,500 minutes.

“I was not really supposed to play that many minutes with the first team, but due to all the injuries and stuff, I was given that opportunity to step up,” he said. “I’m super, super blessed to have have done that. I feel like I’ve learned so much.”

Pivoting to professional soccer after playing in the academy was not easy, however.

“In the academy and United Soccer League, I wasn’t used to having to deal with mindset problems,” he said. “But once I made it to the professional level … I have to learn to realize whose opinion really matters and dealing with stress, a lot of stress.”

Support from coaches, teammates, family and friends helped him deal with his new responsibilities “in a very good way,” he said.

“I’m glad I’ve faced these these challenges now so that I can I can learn from them because I know that they’re going to stick around for the rest of my career,” Wiley said.

A number of European clubs are already interested in the young player, according to MLS watchers. And Wiley, who turns 18 on Dec. 22, has also said he wants to play in the 2026 World Cup in Atlanta as part of the men’s national team.

But first, Wiley wants to help his hometown team return to the playoffs next year for another chance to bring home another MLS Cup.

“I think that was obviously a year that no one wanted and no one really expected from the the guys on this team,” he said.

“But I think it’s easy to say that next year is going to be different and we’re going to really compete for the playoffs. We’re going to do whatever we can,” he said. “I’m excited. I hope the fans are excited, too, because it’s going to be a good year.”

Atlanta United’s Caleb Wiley celebrates after scoring his first career goal in his MLS debut during the opening day match against Sporting Kansas City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 27. (Photo by Matthew Grimes/Atlanta United)

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.