Carleton has played well for the various U.S. national teams he has played for, Charleston when he was on loan, in the U.S. Open Cup with the senior team and with Atlanta United 2, the team’s USL franchise.
But breaking into the first team in anything other than the preseason games and the U.S. Open Cup has proven more difficult.
“I mean it’s definitely a step up from USL or youth national team stuff,” Carleton said. “Everybody is flying the whole game. You have to be pretty fit, and by the 60th minute I was (heaving sound) just dying out there. Adrenaline is pumping so you’re just going the whole time. But as I said, it’s definitely a step up. Everybody is quality, and you see that in the plays if you’re one step off they’ll get past you or break you down.”
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino has consistently preached patience, not only with Carleton but with all of the team’s younger players.
With his family watching, Carleton looked as if he belonged on Saturday. He put both of his shots on goal, though likely could have done better on each. The first, from 22 yards, was right at D.C. United goalkeeper David Ousted. The second, Carleton said he wishes he could take again. Receiving a backheeled pass from Josef Martinez about 10 yards from goal, Carleton had only to beat Ousted. Trying to decide between far post or near post, he also put that shot right down the middle.
Carleton made up for it a few minutes later.
Receiving a pass on a corner kick, Carleton beat his defender and put in a left-footed cross toward the back post. The ball skimmed off the head of a D.C. United defender and to Martinez, who nodded it home to give Atlanta United a 2-1 lead in the 54th minute.
“I was a little bit nervous it was on my left foot,” he said. ‘I just whipped it in, and it ended up getting to Josef, and Josef finished it as he always does.”
Carleton’s teammates were impressed by his performance.
“I think things are always better when you win,” Martinez said. “We know that he just has to stay on that same path now. He has to keep working hard (and) keep trying to earn his place on the team because that’s how you have to make your place on the team.”
Carleton also played a part in the first goal in starting Atlanta United’s attack that resulted in Martinez’s score in the 30th minute.
“I thought his touches were clean in the first half,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “He played simple. He helped create the first goal, which was obviously very important for us. I thought overall it was a very good start, something definitely to build off of.”
The left midfielder spot opened because Ezequiel Barco was benched for a disciplinary issue. Carleton said he found out he was starting on Wednesday.
Martino said that Barco won’t play against Montreal on Saturday. He didn’t put a time frame on how long Barco will be benched. He said they want to see how he responds.
Martino also said the decision to replace Barco came down to choosing between Carleton and Brandon Vazquez. He said Carleton seemed slightly more confident.
Martino has myriad options for the spot in the 4-3-3 formation when the team plays the Impact. He could hand Carleton his second consecutive start. He could give Vazquez his first MLS start. They are vastly different players. Vazquez is taller (6-foot-3 to Carleton’s 5-7) and faster, but Carleton is the better dribbler and passer.
Martino could also move Julian Gressel from central midfield to the left, and give new signing Eric Remedi his first MLS start, pairing him with Jeff Larentowicz.
“He is a confident young lad and you don’t want to overcomplicate things for him,” teammate Chris McCann said. “He just had to come in and keep it simple. Do what he knows best, play like he does in training and be comfortable on the pitch. It’s gonna take him a while to get used to playing in these types of games. I thought for his first start, he did really well tonight. Obviously the assist for the goal will boost his confidence as well.”