Michael Wilkerson woke up in his bed one morning this week and for a second, forgot where he was.
Only 48 hours earlier, he had woken up in his family’s Asheville, N.C. home. Now, he found himself in Atlanta in an unfamiliar room at the beginning of an unpredictable journey.
But at least he wasn’t doing it alone.
Wilkerson, 17, searched for his soccer shoes while scratching the ears of his 10-year-old golden retriever, Gracie. His parents, Linda and Scott, sat in the kitchen of their newly rented Airbnb, drinking coffee and making plans for the day.
Wilkerson closed his door, sat on the floor and crossed his legs. He closed his eyes and began to meditate in an attempt to quiet his mind.
It was a big day.
Wilkerson was hours away from his first official practice with the Atlanta United FC U19 Academy soccer team — a select group hand picked as potential stars in Major League Soccer, perhaps for Atlanta United FC, an MLS expansion team in 2017 that won the league’s most recent championship.
“The fear of the unknown is something everyone is afraid of, but I’ve always looked for new challenges,” Wilkerson said. “I always told parents they would see me play sports on TV one day. This is the beginning of that dream.”
Wilkerson never planned to leave Asheville until college.
He had just finished his junior soccer season as a forward at Asheville High and was in the middle of his select soccer season with Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association.
He was going to finish his high school career while working toward a Division I scholarship. He had even started individual training with Anthony Brenner, who also works as Carolina Day’s boys soccer coach.
Brenner’s brother, Dane, is an assistant soccer coach at Wake Forest University and had a close friend who worked at Atlanta United FC and its academy program. Dane connected his brother with his friend, who told Brenner to let him know when he found some soccer talent ready for the next level.
“At first I was worried that he (Wilkerson) was not mentally prepared for all of this,” Anthony Brenner said. “But after about four to six months, I could tell he was ready. You could see it in his eyes that he was ready.”
In February, Wilkerson was invited to practice with the U19 Academy team. It’s Atlanta United FC’s final development team before it signs players to professional contracts.
Before his tryout, Wilkerson found himself alone in the Atlanta FC United locker room for nearly an hour.
His felt his nerves and anxieties creep into his mind. He took a deep breath and began to meditate.
“One of the biggest things that helped me develop as a soccer player is the practice of mindfulness,” Wilkerson said. “I try to have no resistance to my negative thoughts. If you resist them, then they come back even faster. I’ve learned to sit with my fears and breath through them. It tends to help them fade away.”
Wilkerson’s mental strength runs in the family. His mother and father have spent decades practicing meditation and yoga. Scott has taken several silent meditation retreats. Linda is a certified yoga instructor.
“Michael started yoga and mediation in my belly,” Linda said, laughing. “He even wanted to go to a Buddhist temple for his 16th birthday. It’s been amazing to see him practice mindfulness so religiously.”
Wilkerson impressed the Atlanta FC United coaches at his first tryout practice and was asked to suit up for a game. A couple weeks later, they called and offered him a spot on the team.
“We got the call offering, and I was thinking, ‘What’s the catch? How much is it going to cost?’ ” Scott Wilkerson said. “Then they told me it was free. ‘What do you mean it’s free?’ Then you realized that this is a chance of a lifetime. The facilities are world-class and they throw everything into developing these players.”
There was, however, one small catch.
They wanted Wilkerson to move to Atlanta in two months to join the team and finish the current season. They needed his talents at the striker position as soon as possible.
It meant leaving school before the semester was over and forgoing his senior year of high school. Now, he’ll graduate in December taking mostly online classes to get his high school diploma.
Playing with Atlanta FC United allows him the choice next year to either sign a professional contract or play college soccer.
It also meant leaving the teammates he’d grown up with since moving to Asheville in the fourth grade.
“I remember being nervous to tell my Select team that I was leaving, but when I did, I huddled everyone together after practice and they all came in for a hug,” Wilkerson said. “Having that support system has been something I’ll cherish. They understood this was what I’ve always wanted to do.”
They also asked if his mom and dad planned to join him in Atlanta.
“For me, there wasn’t even a question about leaving,” Linda Wilkerson said. “Why wouldn’t I? This is Michael’s dream. And I want to be with my family and I love we get to go on this new adventure together.”
The move will be particularly hard on Scott, who owns Harmony Motors in Asheville, and will have to split his time between the cities during the next year and a half. Linda also left her part time job with Asheville Schools.
It’s a sacrifice their son does not take for granted.
“It means the world to me,” Wilkerson said. “I see how much is going to change for not only me but them as well. I see how much love and support is behind me, and that makes me want to take this opportunity in stride. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Wilkerson is not the only young player from WNC to garner an invite from an elite level MLS academy.
Carolina Day sophomore goalkeeper Will Watson and Johnny Mennell — the son of UNCA men’s soccer coach Mathes Mennell — will join programs next year.
Watson will play for FC Dallas’ U15 team and Mennell will join the DC United U15 team.
“I think this is a big opportunity to put WNC on the map as a soccer town that can produce the same talent as bigger cities,” said Trei Morrison, who worked with all three players as boys director of coaching at the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association. “To be able to have a couple guys make it to an MLS academy is a big deal for us. It says a lot about the way soccer is being treated in Asheville.”
Carolina Day’s Brenner trained both Watson and Wilkerson. He said their success will lay the foundation for the next generation of soccer players in the area.
“These academies are the farm team to the professional teams,” Brenner said. “Now that we’ve had some players have success, these teams will trust us when we call them and tell them about a player. This is a first for us, but not a last.”