As Caleb Wiley entered the field for his Atlanta United debut against Sporting Kansas City, he looked like the calmest person inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But on the inside, he was about as nervous as you'd expect a 17-year-old debutant to be. Still, just 14 minutes after his introduction, he put away his first professional goal to seal a 3-1 win for the Five Stripes on the opening day of the 2022 MLS season.
"I think playing in front of 67,000 fans, you’re going to be a bit nervous. But I was still very excited," Wiley recalled in an exclusive sitdown with 90min. "Then when I was running onto the field, I couldn’t believe it. When I got the goal, it felt like my heart stopped beating.
"Scoring goals isn’t something I do often in games so, obviously, to do it in my hometown in front of special people, it was a great feeling."
Given the instinctive movement and supreme composure on his finish, you'd be forgiven for thinking Wiley is a forward. But no, the teenager is a defender by trade, and even he was taken by surprise at finding himself finishing off the match.
"I was not expecting to score, it didn’t cross my mind once," Wiley said with a laugh. "But when I go onto the field, my goal is to just give the team something else and I’m glad I did that with the goal.”
A debut goal in front of a hometown crowd in excess of 67,000, this was easily the defining moment of Wiley's fledgling career so far. In fact, if anything tops this, he'll have some incredible stories to tell.
A cruel aspect of human nature is the struggle to hold onto our most cherished memories, with the highs of life coming and going in the blink of an eye with barely a second to catch your breath.
Luckily, Wiley is able to recall his goal vividly, even talking us through his thought process as he raced towards SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia.
“I saw Marcelino get the ball and turn. He’s an unbelievable player so I knew he was able to play that ball and that I was able to get onto it," he recalled. "Once I got onto the ball, I took one touch and then a second touch that got it out of my feet a little bit, but I was thinking I had to get there because I saw the goalkeeper rushing out. But I was able to get it around him and score."
And what about the emotions running through Wiley? What did the goal mean to him and his family?
”I don’t even know what to say. I was so excited, so happy. I couldn’t believe it," the teenager added, almost lost for words. "Just hearing all those fans cheering, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of.
“And my parents were so excited for me. There’s a video going around where my dad has some tears. It was a nice video and yeah, they were very excited.”
Most remarkable was Wiley's incredible composure for someone so young and inexperienced.
But Atlanta United are blessed with one of the best man managers Major League Soccer has to offer in Gonzalo Pineda. The Mexican's warm nature and personal demeanor have galvanized this roster during his time at the club, and Pineda's words to Wiley just before his introduction clearly had a calming effect.
“He told me what he wanted from me at first, which was to make those runs in behind, just be a threat, go at players, and defend inside-out when we don’t have the ball," Wiley said.
“But then he just told me to have fun. He said I’m a great player with a bright future and that I’m going to do great. It just made me calm down a little bit and feel ready.”
On his professional relationship with Pineda specifically, Wiley added: “I really enjoy working with Gonzalo. He’s a great coach and a great person. Honestly, there has been a lot of positional work so far, one-on-one defending, moving my feet. Those little things that turn out to be really things. He’s been a great coach so far.”
Following the match, an image surfaced of a much younger (and smaller) Wiley with Atlanta United icon Josef Martinez. Not only is it a reminder of just how young the player is, but also that he's in the unique position of growing up in the Atlanta soccer culture, which is even younger than he is.
Wiley - who names legendary Real Madrid left-back Marcelo as his idol growing up - has noticed a massive increase in street soccer thanks to the influence the club is having on its city.
“Every time I go out by myself to a field, I’m always seeing kids, teenagers, adults playing soccer," he said. "You can get a little game going. It’s great to see other talents, meet new people, and have fun. That’s what it’s all about.”
This season, Wiley's main job will be to back-up left-back Andrew Gutman. But he told us his long-term goals are to win Champions League titles in Europe, and the World Cup with the United States.
Luckily, Wiley already has one success story from the club in his position to look up to in the form of George Bello, who recently sealed a move to German Bundesliga side Arminia Bielefeld and has six USMNT caps to his name already at just 20 years old.
"Watching George, he’s gone through the whole pathway from the academy, USL, first team, then to Europe," Wiley said of Bello. "It’s every kid’s dream and to see him do it makes me want to follow in his footsteps. I’m looking forward to learning from these guys and following George’s steps.”
Nobody can blame Wiley for setting Europe as the ultimate destination. But he's keeping a remarkably level head for someone so young that has been quickly thrust into the MLS melting pot.
Asked what message he'd like to give to the Atlanta United fanbase he was once a part of, his answer made it clear he was just a youngster living in the present, looking to give his all for his hometown.
“I just want to give my everything, every day in training and in games," Wiley declared, unable to keep the excitement of representing Atlanta United off his face.
"I’m sure that the fans love to see the creativity and the best football, so I want to be my best on the field and to just keep on improving and getting better for them.”