Atlanta United's Caleb Wiley takes world stage by storm on U.S. U-20s' left flank

The U-20 World Cup provides countries a way to test their youth development level and prepares young players for the jump to the full national team. It also helps club scouts evaluate young players and potentially make transfer offers.

Leading up to the 2023 U-20 World Cup, Caleb Wiley was seen as one of the top American players as he checked many boxes for scouts.

The 18-year-old is less two weeks shy of being eligible for the 2025 U-20 team.

He is a natural left back, a position of need for many teams, and has the versatility to play left wing – which he has been doing frequently in 2023.

Wiley is also already a regular first-team starter for his club, Atlanta United, and his mixture of skill and top athleticism allows him to cover the line easily.

In 2022, Wiley debuted in Atlanta and made 18 starts. While he showed promise, the team failed to qualify for the playoffs, and it was a frustrating time for all involved.

In 2023, however, Atlanta is improved and currently sits fifth in its conference. Wiley has been excellent as a regular starter and was named the MLS Player of the Week on March 13 for a two-goal outing in a win over Charlotte. In particular, Wiley has been effective combining with Thiago Almada, who was a member of Argentina’s 2022 World Cup-winning team.

“I can't really say last year was bad year because it was my first year,” Wiley told Soccer America. “It was always going to be a learning experience - and I learned so much from the good and bad moments. Coming into this season, I knew what to expect. I wanted to make sure that I came into the season stronger, mentally stronger, and just be ready to go. I honestly was in the right mindset before every game and every training. That only helped me get better and better.”

Consistently strong performances at the club level open doors.

In April, Wiley was called up to the full U.S. national team for a 1-1 friendly draw with Mexico. He ended up earning his first cap when he came on as a late substitute for the final few minutes and replaced Sergino Dest.

In May, he was named to the U.S. U-20 World Cup team by Coach Mikey Varas. While Atlanta United has not always released Wiley for youth national team duty (including being withheld for the 2022 Concacaf Championship, where the U.S. team qualified for both the U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics), Atlanta agreed to release him for the World Cup.

Thus far in Argentina, Wiley has delivered. He has appeared in all four of the USA’s games, including three starts. The U.S. team has won all four of its games and is yet to conceded a goal. He has been primarily playing left wing-back among in the middle four in a 3-4-3 formation and he scored the U.S. team’s final goal in a 3-0 win over Fiji in the second group stage game.

“Caleb's ceiling is higher than any of us even know,” Varas said in March. “I am happy to see it happening and coming to fruition. No surprises for us. Caleb is a top player and a top human being.”

While Wiley hasn’t always been able to be with the U-20 team this cycle, being part of the team is very important to him. Throughout the cycle, he was always in contact with Varas and if Atlanta United had a game and the opposing team had a U.S. U-20 player, Wiley would try to catch up with him.

The 2023 U-20 World Cup is the first major international tournament for Wiley and a berth in the semifinal is on the line when the USA takes on Uruguay on Sunday night. Should the U.S. team win, there is a solid argument that this team could be the most consequential youth national team in the history of the program, given a run to the semifinals plus ending the Olympic drought on the men’s side.

“It's a huge honor to represent my country, to represent my club, my family, our friends back home,” Wiley said. “This is a dream come true. I can remember when I was 7 or 8 when I would just dream of just playing in a World Cup. It didn't matter if it was a youth World Cup or the senior World Cup. It was just the World Cup."

"This is a time that I'll never forget. I'm making sure that I take in every single second of the days that we are here and just enjoy it as a as best as I can.”

What has made it even more impressive is how the U.S. team advanced to Sunday’s quarterfinal without many of its top eligible players.

Ricardo Pepi is age-eligible but has never been with the team, having fully integrated into to the full national team.

Paxten Aaronson has been the best U-20 player throughout the cycle, and he was not released by Eintracht Frankfurt on the eve of the roster deadline. Other potential starters in Jalen Neal and Brian Gutierrez were not released while Rokas Pukstas and Kevin Paredes were only able to join the team after the group stage. New players such as Darren Yapi, Owen Wolff and Josh Wynder have had to play big roles.

“The good thing about everyone here is that everyone's adaptable to anything,” Wiley said. “It doesn't matter if there's a new player coming in, they're able to adapt to the team. That's what you need. You have to have an open mind and be ready to go.”

Moving forward after the U-20 World Cup, Wiley has put himself into an excellent position to take big steps for his future. There will be Atlanta’s push for the playoffs and it's likely his performances for the U-20 team and Atlanta will see transfer interest from European teams solidify.

Next year, the U.S. U-23 team will take part in the 2024 Olympics in Paris and Wiley should be in competition for the left back position along with John Tolkin and his U-20 teammate Jonathan Gomez. There is also the full senior team, where the backup left back position behind Antonee Robinson has never fully been established.

Wiley is looking forward to continuing to represent the United States and his first cap in April had a profound impact in establishing that as a priority.

“It definitely gave me a boost of confidence,” Wiley said of his first cap. “I didn't really see it coming. It happened so quickly. To make my senior debut at age 18 is something I would have never thought of. It really puts a smile on my face. It just goes to show that all the little training, all this small training that I've done by myself, all just the hard work that I put in does something in the long run.

"But this is just the beginning. I still have lots to learn and areas to improve. I'm excited for what's next.”

3 comments about "Atlanta United's Caleb Wiley takes world stage by storm on U.S. U-20s' left flank".
  1. Santiago 1314, June 2, 2023 at 11:13 p.m.

    WOW, Talk about Over- Hype Headlines for a u20...
    He's done Well, But NOT "All World"... See Canadian DAVIEs for that Definition.!!!

  2. R2 Dad, June 3, 2023 at 12:40 a.m.

    Jedi has never cemented the LB spot because he can't cross and has poor decision-making in the attacking 3rd. If this kid can cross and has half a brain he could displace Jedi before the WC if he keeps developing.

  3. John Polis, June 4, 2023 at 10:08 p.m.

    I don't think anyone takes the world stage by storm at by storm at the U-20 level. And the USA defense against Uruguay clearly showed his vulnerabilities. We still aren't quite able to hang with the world's best.

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