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Wiley happy with the U-20 team's progress, excited for the future

ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke at length with U.S. U-20 World Cup left back Caleb Wiley on his development with Atlanta United and the U.S. U-20 team's progress in Argentina. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 02, 2023
8:25 AM

THE UNITED STATES U-20 team is getting set to take on Uruguay on Sunday in the quarterfinal of the World Cup and the backbone of the team’s success in Argentina has been its defense, which is yet to concede a goal through four games. Just about all of the players have been responsible for helping the team get to this point but for Caleb Wiley, the journey has been especially rewarding.

Ahead of the tournament, Wiley had frequently been listed as among the team’s top American players to watch at the U-20 World Cup. As an athletic left back, Wiley has had an impressive start to the season with Atlanta United where he was voted as the MLS Player of the Week on March 13 for a two-goal effort against Charlotte.

On top of that, in April he was awarded his first U.S. national team senior cap when he came on for the final minutes of a 1-1 draw with Mexico.

It was little surprise that he was named to the U.S. U-20 World Cup team but Wiley has done well up to this point where he has appeared in all four of the U.S. team’s games and has made three starts.

“We're really happy with where we are,” Wiley told American Soccer Now from Argentina. “If I compare this group from the end of 2021 with the Revolution's Cup in Mexico and the amount of huge steps that we've taken as a group and individually, I think everyone keeps on getting better and better whenever I come back to these camps. It's great to reunite with everyone because these are like my brothers.”

Wiley hasn’t always been able to join the U.S. U-20 team this cycle due his need in Atlanta, and he wasn’t part of the team in June 2022 that qualified for both the U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. But in the end, Atlanta released him for the World Cup, and it has helped to boost his stock.

“Caleb's ceiling is higher than any of us even know,” U.S. U-20 head coach Mikey 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.”

Despite not attending every camp, Wiley has a very close relationship with the players on the team. Wiley is not a big video game players and that often serves as a place for the players to connect, but whenever Atlanta United would play a team with another U.S. U-20 player, he tries to connect afterward.

This U.S. U-20 team can already be considered a success. The semifinals are within reach, the team ended the program’s Olympic qualifying drought, and several players have already earned their first U.S. national team cap.

“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 seven or eight 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.”

On top of that, the team has advanced to Sunday’s quarterfinal without many key players. Ricardo Pepi is age-eligible but has never been with the team this cycle. Paxten Aaronson has been the team's 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 late and haven’t played much of a role yet.

But yet, the team is still going strong despite the setbacks. New players like Darren Yapi and Josh Wynder have quickly fit into the team and other players have adjusted into different positions – such as Jonathan Gomez scoring the winning goal against Ecuador at right wingback.

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

That also includes Wiley who has traditionally been listed as a left back but who has been pushed forward into a wingback role at the World Cup and has the versatility to play left wing, where he has featured several times this season for Atlanta United.

Regardless of whether he is playing left back or left wing in Atlanta, head coach Gonzalo Pineda wants him to push forward into the attack as he has been very effective this season in creating chances – including connecting well with the team’s key player Thiago Almada, who was a member of Argentina’s 2022 World Cup winning team. But sometimes, Pineda gives Wiley very little notice as to which position he will be playing, and for Wiley, he has no problems making a quick adjustment.

“Before I even joined Atlanta United's academy, I was an attacker, more of a left winger. Throughout my academy days, I played some left wing. I've always been familiar with it and I've always loved it. Just being able to have that much freedom and being able to be creative in the final third - it's amazing. When I do get put in that left back position, I don't complain at all because that's the position that I even love more and that's the position that I'm a lot more comfortable playing.”


Even while in Argentina, Wiley is in contact with Atlanta as his teammates and coaches, including Pineda, have been reaching out to him to offer their support during the team’s run. After the U-20 World Cup, Wiley will return and look to boost the team’s playoff chances as Atlanta currently sits fifth in the 15-team Eastern Conference.

In 2022, Wiley made his first-team debut with Atlanta and surpassed the 1500-minute benchmark while making 18 starts. But that team failed to make the playoffs. Now Wiley is taking a bigger role on the team as it improves in 2023.

“Last year, I can't really say it was a bad year because it was my first year,” Wiley said. “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 just in the right mindset before every game and every training. That only helped me get better and better.”

Wiley is in the process of setting himself up for big steps in his career in the near future following the U-20 World Cup. There is Atlanta’s season and then there is also the possibility that transfer interest heats up in the months ahead given his youth (he is less than 10 days from being eligible for the 2025 U-20 World Cup) and all that has taken place.

There is also the full national team and future potential international opportunities. Wiley’s senior national team debut against Mexico in April was very brief but it had a profound impact on him. He now believes more caps are possible and the backup left back spot behind Antonee Robinson is not yet claimed. This week it was revealed he was on the U.S. team’s provisional roster for the 2023 Gold Cup.  He can also compete with John Tolkin and Jonathan Gomez for the starting left back position on the 2024 Olympic team.

No matter what, Wiley has put himself into a position for big opportunities in the future and he is looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

“It definitely gave me a boost of confidence,” Wiley said of his first cap. “I didn't really see it coming. It happened so quick. 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.”

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