While there may be a feeling of disappointment from Atlanta United fans after their defeat in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Wednesday, there was a huge silver lining to a cloudy evening in South Florida: some talented youth on display. 17-year-old Andrew Carleton and 18-year-old Brandon Vazquez recorded a crucial 90 minutes of experience under the belts against a veteran side, while 18-year-old Lagos Kunga made his much-anticipated debut with the club.
“This whole year has been crazy for me,” Kunga said after the match, “I’m still trying to take it all in. I was definitely excited, but when the board went up with my number, some nerves came in and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really going in!’”
Vazquez feels like a veteran in comparison – with three goals and two assists in all competitions so far this year – but as a teenager himself, his role has primarily been providing a spark off the bench. But he’s certainly impressed in the time he’s received, and with another goal Wednesday, the 18-year-old is earning more and more time on the field with the first team.
“In the past month, we’ve seen a lot of growth out of Brandon,” Coach Martino said through a translator after the game. “Yes he played tonight, but there’s also previous games, even in MLS matches, that he’s done very well in those too so we’re very happy with them.”
“[Coach] Tata always tell us to be confident in ourselves, play one-on-one on the wings, and that’s just what I did,” Vazquez said. “I’m always looking for the best for the team and also for myself, and if I have an opportunity I like to take them.”
One major highlight for Five Stripes fans was the witnessing a start from Andrew Carleton, the club’s first-ever Homegrown signing. He shined as brightly as anyone on the field, confidently taking on veteran defenders and constantly proving himself as an attacking threat from the left wing.
“I thought it was a decent game for myself,” Carleton said. “I was able to step it up a little bit, create a couple chances and win the penalty to get the equalizer. I thought I could’ve been a little sharper in the final third, but it’s all just things to work on and keep improving.”
That desire to improve was evident in all three youngsters after the game, a testament to their commitment to excellence and lack of complacency. But for a forward line all 18 years or younger, they gave a veteran back line a plethora of problems, and Coach Martino was quick to give his youngsters credit.
“They have a bright future, and they’ve done very well,” Martino said. “We pulled them from the Development tournament to come down with us, and they did very well.”
An end to the U.S. Open Cup run often means less playing time for younger players, but these three remain optimistic about their futures, and take it as a challenge to continue improving.
“It’s unfortunate that we are out now but it will just make us work harder to get our playing time in MLS, and be able to keep working and working for that,” Carleton said. “Whenever the playing time comes, you just have to be ready for your chance.”
While the game ultimately ended in disappointment, it was a brief glimpse at a bright future for Atlanta United, and a special night for some young players who have been working up to this moment for a long time.
It was awesome to see [Lagos], somebody I grew up watching and playing with through the youth system be able to get in, and to be able to be on the field at the same time as him,” said Carleton. “It’s just another example of the youth that’s coming through Atlanta nowadays”