By Kerry King
Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley’s professional soccer career got off to a hot start Feb. 27, when the 17-year-old Decatur-DeKalb YMCA alum scored a goal in his debut game – a 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City.
Since scoring his first goal, the Atlanta native said he has seen steady progress in his game with the halfway point of the season approaching.
Wiley—who spent much of his youth development as a part of the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA soccer program (DDYSC) before joining the Atlanta United Academy as an under-12 player in 2016—has made eight appearances and four starts with Atlanta United’s first team this season.
After suffering an injury on May 7 in a game against the Chicago Fire, Wiley spent a month on the sidelines before returning and playing 45 minutes in a game on June 14 against Pachuca of Mexico. He followed his return game by making his third official start of the season on June 19, going 85 minutes in the win over Inter Miami.
“It felt great to be back out there,” Wiley said after the Pachuca game.
Wiley is the latest of several DDYSC players to make the jump from the YMCA to the United Academy, a soccer training academy that provides young players with professional coaching and a potential pathway to the professional level. Lagos Kunga and Machop Chol also made the jump from DDYSC.
Wiley is also one of two DDYSC alums now playing on Atlanta United’s first team – one of the top honors for a former member of a club’s academy.
After a few years in the academy, Wiley made his debut with the Atlanta United second team (Atlanta United 2) in July of 2020. He was 15 years old at the time, the youngest player in club history to appear in a professional game.
“It’s a special moment for me,” Wiley said. “I know there’s a lot for me to improve on. I’ve had a great time; I’ve learned so much. It’s been a great learning experience.”
Wiley said it was difficult to adjust to the upgrade in competition after transitioning from playing in the academy to playing against professional soccer players and adults.
“When I first started playing with the 2’s, it was tough getting used to the physical play, so I had to adapt to it pretty quickly. I think I did well. I started learning from the coaches and the players and I began to see myself improving,” added Wiley.
Two years after getting his first start with the second team, Wiley was called up to the first team.
“I’ve always said that making the jump from the USL [the second division league below MLS] to MLS was harder than making the jump from the academy level to USL,” Wiley said. “There are professionals in the USL as well, and they’re good players, but the first team is a whole different level. You’ve got to be thinking quicker, be more on your toes, you have to think two steps ahead.”
If there was a misplaced pass or a sloppy defensive play, Wiley said the senior players on the team would let players know, and not always in the most pleasant manner.
“I was always playing it safe and doing whatever they told me to do,” added Wiley.
Wiley said he still receives plenty of support, citing a conversation he had with Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda before Wiley entered his debut game with the first team.
“He told me that I’d do great and I’m a great player,” said Wiley. “Stuff to help me settle the nerves a little bit and allow me to play my game.”
As he has gotten more playing time, Wiley said he has become “more comfortable with myself.” He added that his playing time with the United States Youth National Team also boosted his confidence, and he said he hopes to spend more time representing his country in international play – which he called “an honor.”
Debuting on Feb. 19, 2020, against Spain, Wiley played three times with the U17 national team. He played the full 90 minutes each time. Wiley also made four appearances for the U20 team—the first against Brazil during November 2021—and logged 247 minutes.
Looking forward to 2026, when the FIFA World Cup will be hosted primarily in the US for the second time ever, the defender said he will be 21 and hopes to be a member of the full national team by then.
On June 16, Atlanta was named as one of the host cities of the 2026 tournament. Wiley said representing his country in his city of his birth and in the stadium where his career started would allow his career to come full circle.
“That’s what I wish for. I’m going to do whatever I can to try and be there. That would be special for me and lot of people,” said Wiley.
After a 1-2 defeat at Toronto on June 25, where Wiley made his fourth start, Atlanta United next plays on June 30 at New York Red Bulls.
Photos by Kyle Hess/Atlanta United