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Player Spotlight

Caleb Stanko Is Finding Success with SC Freiburg

The former U.S. under-20 defender Caleb Stanko is making a strong impression with SC Freiburg's reserve team. ASN's Josh Deaver spoke with the 20-year-old about his development and goals.
BY Josh Deaver Posted
December 05, 2013
1:58 PM
ONE OF THE LEAST HERALDED American soccer success stories this season comes courtesy of former U.S. under-20 national team captain Caleb Stanko.

Stanko, 20, is currently in the midst of a breakout campaign playing with the reserve team for Bundesliga club SC Freiburg in the German Regionalliga. Now in his second full season since signing with the club in 2011, it’s a journey which has seen him trade the small-town charm of Holly, Michigan, for the postcard views of southwest Germany’s Black Forest.

He’s come a long way already but Stanko is setting his sights even higher.

“One of my goals is to be a top midfielder within the Bundesliga and to eventually play for Borussia Dortmund," Stanko told American Soccer Now. "Also, to play in multiple World Cups and win at least one! I think it is better to have goals that seem too high because it motivates me to always keep working harder.”

So far the strategy has worked. After spending time with Freiburg’s German Cup-winning U-19 side, Stanko broke into the reserves early in the year and hasn’t looked back. This season he’s started all but one game for the club, which currently sits third in the Sudwest division of the German fourth tier.

“The team has been doing really well this season, and I think that has to do with the whole mindset of the team." Stanko said. "Everyone is happy that we are doing so well, but the great thing is that none of us are satisfied with where we are at in terms of our overall ability. Each guy is pushing the guy next to him to get better.”

Within a cauldron of competition, Stanko has enjoyed a rapid ascent. Despite occupying the center of defense for the U.S. under-20 team, he features exclusively as a defensive midfielder for his club. In his preferred role, Stanko has emerged as a team leader; even donning the captain’s armband in a recent fixture. He has also caught the eye of manager Christian Streich, who has begun including the American more frequently in first-team training sessions.

As the league nears its annual winter break, Stanko remains focused on the next set of challenges.

“I want to be training more and more with the first team going forward this season, as well as being on the bench and potentially playing in some Bundesliga games,” he said. “I also believe that we have the potential to win the Regional League.”

A veteran of youth club soccer, Stanko broke onto the national scene as a teenager featuring for Vardar SC, a high-profile academy outfit based in nearby Pontiac, Michigan. In 2010, he helped the squad capture the U-17/U-18 United States Development Academy National Championship. In the same year, he also led his high school, Oakland Christian, to its first state title, being named to the All-State First XI for the second consecutive season.

Along with his accolades came plenty of opportunity. All set to attend the University of Michigan on a full academic scholarship, Stanko caught the eye of a Freiburg scout and was offered a trial opportunity as part of a recently signed partnership between the club and Vardar. After two challenging but ultimately successful stints, Stanko inked his first professional contract in early 2011.

Despite fulfilling his dream of playing professionally, the decision did not come easy.

“There were positives and negatives to both sides,” said Stanko. “Many people said that I shouldn’t give up a huge scholarship and a great education. [But] that whole time I was thinking, I cannot let such a huge opportunity of playing professional soccer in Europe slip through my fingers.”

Upon arrival, the transition to a life in Germany proved equally difficult.

Living alone, an ocean away from familiarity and hindered by a significant language barrier, Stanko struggled early on. The pitch also failed to offer respite from a steep learning curve. “When I first came, it was really tough because I had all these new things,” Stanko told U.S. Soccer in 2011. “The guys know you’re new, and then you make a mistake and everyone’s getting on you.”

Crediting his “faith, family, and friends," Stanko moved past the initial growing pains and settled into a familiar routine; one of daily trainings, weekend fixtures; and attending college online in his spare time.

Soon, the United States Soccer Federation came calling.

The federation had Stanko on the radar—he had previously participated in camps for the U-14, U-15 and U-18 age levels—but the move to Germany forced their hand. Stanko first saw time with the under-23 squad under head coach Caleb Porter, who invited the 18-year-old to a training camp meant to prepare for the 2012 Olympic qualifying campaign.

While he didn’t make the cut, he did make an impression on under-20 coach Tab Ramos, who nominated Stanko for multiple camps during the 2013 qualification cycle. Despite playing out of position, Stanko was a linchpin for the American squad. A constant presence in an otherwise shaky and injury-riddled backline, he excelled in CONCACAF and earned starts against Spain and Ghana at this summer’s U-20 World Cup.

Largely overmatched, the Americans failed to advance past the Group Stage. Nevertheless, the experience proved invaluable in Stanko’s maturation.

“It was such an honor to be able to represent the Red, White, and Blue as well as being the captain,” he said. “It was great to see how I competed with some of the top players in the world for our age. I think that it definitely gave me confidence when I came back to Germany.”

His World Cup debut was another big moment in a year of firsts for Stanko. In August, he netted his first professional goal. Shortly after, he was given an opportunity to travel with the Freiburg senior team, making the roster for a Europa League fixture against Spanish club Sevilla. While he didn’t see the field—which he labels “a disappointment”—a first-team debut seems well within reach.

Speaking on Stanko’s future prospects, Charlie Nobile, a scout for TopDrawerSoccer.com, lauded his steady progression. “He has all the tools defensively to become a professional. Takes great angles to the ball, and is relentless in the tackle. [He] leads from the back, and organizes his other defenders with confidence. I also like how quickly he closes attackers down, and doesn't allow them much time on the ball.”

Nobile added: “It’s still a bit early to tell, but all indications point to him getting his debut soon.”

With the Regionalliga shuttered until February, Stanko is eager to return home for the holidays. He and his parents take turns on the trans-Atlantic flights, but the visits are not as frequent as he would like. The down time will be welcomed after the long slog of the season, but Stanko knows once training resumes its back to the grindstone.

“My focus when I return will be the same as it is now, which is to keep working consistently in order to become the best player I can be. I will work as hard as I can with the things I can control; my training intensity, my sleep and my nutritional habits,” Stanko explained.

“And the rest, I have to have faith that it will all work out.”

ASN Contributing Editor Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him on Twitter already.

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