From left: John, Andrew, Alan, Erin and Erica or “Coco.”

Michelle and John Carleton are parents to Atlanta United’s first Homegrown Player, Andrew Carleton, and four other soccer-obsessed children playing on club teams around the metro area. If anyone knows the ins and outs of being a soccer family, they do.

MLS-cup winning Atlanta United didn’t exist when Andrew began taking soccer lessons at age 5, and John and Michelle never imagined one of their children would have the opportunity to play for a major league team right at home.

In 2016, Andrew signed with Atlanta United FC, and after a season with the Charleston Battery, he came back to Atlanta in 2017. He was able to walk on to the field of Bobby-Dodd Stadium in front of Atlanta United’s growing fan base and most importantly his parents.

Michelle remembers what an incredible day it was for their family:

“We were in the stands the first time to see him walk out on the field, and I remember seeing him coming up the sideline, and I hit John and said, ‘I think he’s going in, I think he’s going in!’ And just screaming at the top of my voice. It was so wonderful! It wasn’t the end of the dream, it was really the beginning. After all these years of preparation he finally takes the field for the first time.”

Balancing Academics and Soccer

John and Michelle made the decision early on to homeschool their children. This allowed each child time ample time to practice and travel for soccer. In Andrew’s training before Atlanta United, soccer took him to places like Mexico, India and Europe.

“The kids have been homeschooled since day one, this gives you a lot of flexibility to move things around. This has been crucial to allowing them to do what they do, get extra practices in and to travel to special places,” John says.

Michelle adds, “With soccer it is a bit different than the other sports, it is not so affiliated with the school. In order to get college scholarships, almost all of that comes exclusively from the club side as opposed to the high school side. There is a huge amount of traveling, missing a lot of school.”

She remembers when Andrew was playing with the U-17 U.S. National Team and he spent a month in India for the World Cup. She says despite the schedule, it is important to have a good structure so the kids to are able to continue their education.

“You have one parent who is at home and one is traveling. Even though one is home, you may have two kids at different fields at different times and still have to find time to get the work and projects done. There is a lot of studying and YouTube going on in cars and things like this as you are moving around,” she says.

Going Pro

Years before Andrew was signed to a MLS team, John and Michelle had a feeling soccer was going to be his calling.

“I knew there was something special about him. I know people think I’m crazy when I say that, but around 10 I was saying he is going to be special. He gave off such a great vibe of joy and this is just what he loved doing – being with his friends and playing,” Michelle says. “We are a very faith-oriented family and I just felt that was his calling, that was what he was going to do.”

John recalls the way he would act during practice – he could never get enough of soccer, and that continues. “He used to have private sessions with his coach and when the coach was mad he would threaten him by saying we are going to do it 10 more times, and so he [Andrew] would purposely do it badly so he would get the chance to do it 10 more times. This is exactly what he wanted, to be able to do it more or practice longer.”

Tips for Other Soccer Parents

Being this committed to a sport takes a lot of sacrifice, as John and Michelle Carleton know well. Their advice: Be prepared.

“There are ups and downs,” Michelle says. “It is a marathon not a sprint that is for sure.”

John adds, “Virtually all of our friends are made through soccer … it dominates everything in our lives. It is not a thing you can do in an hour and a half a day. It takes a ridiculous amount of dedication, work and passion. If it is in you, throw gas on it and go!”

Listen to your child (Michelle): For Erin, she came along in the National team group, but she really wanted to get her college degree, so we didn’t train as much as we did with Andrew as he got older because her dream changed. With Coco, her dream changed. With Alan, his dream is still there. … I think this has been a huge part of our kids’ success … they lead it.

Kids lead the charge (Michelle): When Andrew was just starting out, we left the club close to our house and we decided to go to UFA, up in Cumming. We took all five kids and would leave at 3:15 p.m. and we would get home between 10:30 and 11 p.m. because everybody had different schedules. I would cook dinner in a crockpot on a converter in the suburban as we were driving. We did crazy things, but it was all based on what they wanted. They led the charge and we gave them the support and sacrifice whatever we needed to make that happen.

Choosing a soccer program (John): There were very few decisions made about the coach along the way. Michelle adds, “And we had some wonderful ones.” John continues, there were times where the kids wanted to play with certain people, that was probably the single biggest thing that yanked us one way or another.

Invest in extra training (John): Whenever you have a big group with one coach and you divide it up amongst 20 people that math is not as advantageous as one coach and four kids. The Carleton family had a primary coach to practice with and also worked on skills together at home. I don’t think any person can play a sport on their team and get to the highest level. They have to augment it.

Practice at home (Michelle): Our kids spent a tremendous amount of time in the backyard practicing. I remember looking out one day and Andrew had built a wall with the wheelbarrow and something else to practice his free kicks over. We had a wooden balance beam, and he would kick the ball to then give him a return pass practice. It truly is what the kid puts in it and you have to have good coaches, but it was more about surrounding the kids with good people and teammates.

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