Caleb Stanko: 'It was Super Exciting to Make My Debut'
September 22, 2016
THE SEPTEMBER WORLD CUP qualifiers provided several insights into the United States men's national team. Christian Pulisic showed he was ready to take a big role moving forward while Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Atlidore made strong returns.
Defensive midfielder Caleb Stanko didn't get to do much but he was the only player this camp to earn his first cap.
In Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, the U.S. was comfortably ahead of Trinidad & Tobago in the 73rd minute, and a spot in the Hexagonal was virtually secure. At that moment, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann went to his bench for his final substitution and sent Michigan native Caleb Stanko into the game to replace Kljestan.
“Even though I was a little nervous, it was super exciting make my debut in a World Cup qualification game on American soil,” Stanko told American Soccer Now. “This was only my second camp with the men's team and seeing the professionalism from the veterans was quite a sight. I learned a lot this past camp.”
Stanko, 23, first became involved with U.S. Soccer when he was a teenager and U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos called him up for the 2013 U-20 World Cup in Turkey. Ramos played Stanko in an unfamiliar position—central defense—and gave him the captain’s armband for two of the team’s three games.
At that point, Stanko’s career seemed to be on the rise. He bypassed college in 2011 when he had the opportunity to sign with Freiburg in Germany. After gradually moving up within the Freiburg organization, he began training with the first team in 2013 following the U-20 World Cup.
During the preseason in 2014, it appeared as if he was on the verge of becoming a first-team regular with the Bundesliga club but suffered a significant setback when he tore his ACL, an injury that essentially ended his season. The club was relegated at the end of that campaign.
Last season in the 2.Bundesliga, Stanko returned and made his first-team debut but did not see regular minutes as Freiburg clawed its way back into the top flight. Despite the sporadic playing time, the club signed Stanko to an extension and loaned him to FC Vaduz—a club based in Liechtenstein that plays in the Swiss Super League.
While Vaduz has struggled to start the season, sitting in eighth place in a 10-team league, the loan has given Stanko an opportunity for regular first-team minutes. So far he has played in seven of the club's eight games (his loan wasn’t finalized until after the first game) and is adapting to the new environment. On Wednesday he started in Vaduz's scoreless draw with second-place Young Boys.
“The loan has been good so far but like always at new places there's an adjustment period,” Stanko explained. “I think the Swiss league is often underestimated, and the level of play has absolutely surprised me. There are aspects of the game that are quite good here. My goal this season is to play as many games as possible and have a successful season with the team. Of course it's tough leaving [Freiburg], but it is very important to start playing this season and that would have been in question at Freiburg for this season.”
Now with his international debut in the rearview mirror, Stanko’s goal is to become a regular contributor to the national team. There are potential openings at the defensive midfield position as Kyle Beckerman is now 34 years old while Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have never truly settled into the defensive role, instead preferring to push forward in the attack.
Stanko will face competition at the No. 6 as Perry Kitchen is still in the picture as he has become a consistent starter for Hearts in Scotland. While Klinsmann tends to use Kellyn Acosta at fullback, he plays a midfeld role at FC Dallas and could be an option there for the United States. And then there are players like Danny Williams and Alfredo Morales, who have seen time with the national team, but neither has established himself as a regular.
The September qualifiers featured a number of younger players—Pulisic, Acosta, Bobby Wood, Paul Arriola, Rubio Rubin, Jordan Morris, and Ethan Horvath—and Klinsmann acknowledges that he wants young players like Stanko to push those like Jones and Beckerman who are ahead of him.
“I'm not looking at the age necessarily,” Klinsmann told ESPN last month, "but I want the younger ones to push harder. Caleb Stanko made a move away from Freiburg because he said, ‘I need to play.’ He called me too and I said, ‘Go and get your starting role.’ And he made a very good impression in [his first call-up in May for the] camp leading up to the Puerto Rico game. Kids like him and others, we want them to become stronger.”
Stanko recognizes that it will take a tremendous effort to push the established veterans out of their starting spots. But he also believes he is up to the task.
“It's an enormous challenge, but something I'm very motivated to strive to achieve,” Stanko said. “The goal stays the same for me, which is to be a starter on my club team and on the national team. That goal takes lots of hard work and patience to achieve. It's always an honor to play with the national team. Also it's great to see and play with other Americans and guys I've played with or against in the past.”
The next opportunity for Stanko could come in October when the U.S. faces Cuba and New Zealand in what will be its only friendlies before the start of the Hexagonal in November. Stanko hopes to rejoin the squad for those games and continue his immersion into the team.
“I always try to speak with the older players who have so much experience and wisdom,” Stanko said. “Whether it be about nutrition, dealing with the press, or simply talking about tactics they always have a greater understanding and unique perspective that I like to learn about. Coach Jurgen told me to keep working and keep going at my club, and that I'm on a good path.”