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Player Spotlight

Caleb Stanko on Verge of Realizing Bundesliga Dream

The 20-year-old Michigan native is pushing his way into Freiburg's first team, and could see significant playing time during the upcoming Bundesliga season. ASN's Brian Sciaretta has more.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
July 17, 2014
9:06 AM
WITH THE BUNDESLIGA PRESEASON well underway, competition is intensifying as many young players attempt to transition out of youth squads and stake their claims on first-team roster spots.

For Caleb Stanko, the opportunity is now.

After joining SC Freiburg in 2011, the Michigan native has steadily risen through the ranks of the Bundesliga club’s academy, often serving as captain of Freiburg’s youth teams. He is a pure No. 6 defensive midfielder but has also helped out occasionally at other positions, ranging from right back, central defense, and right midfield.

In May he signed a multiyear professional contract with the club and so far this preseason, he has trained exclusively with the club’s first team.

Stanko will turn 21 later this month and all signs are pointing to his Bundesliga debut fast approaching. Last season he made Freiburg’s first team bench twice. The first time was against Sevilla in the Europa League and it appeared as if he was going to see the field. It didn’t happen that day but with extensive time with the first team this preseason, he is driven to finally break through.

“The first game was against the Sevilla,” Stanko told American Soccer Now, "one of the assistant coaches at halftime told me to get ready and start warming up because mostly likely I’d be coming in. When I didn’t come in, of course, it was a disappointment. The second time was against Werder Bremen and I was there because one of the guys got hurt and I knew I wasn’t going to come in. But just to walk into the stadium for a home game, it was a really great experience.”

“That’s one of my goals for the preseason and season. It’s definitely on the top of my list to make my debut.”

When Germany won the World Cup last week, the German Federation received plaudits for emphasizing youth development following the national team’s disappointing performance at the European Championships in 2000. Part of the DFB’s approach was an expensive restructuring of the youth team setup among clubs in the Bundesliga, 2.Bundesliga, and 3.Liga.

While not a particularly big club by Bundesliga standards, Freiburg has managed to survive—and occasionally thrive—in the Bundesliga, highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the 2012-13 campaign. That strong showing was due in large part due to strong output from its academy and youth teams, and now Stanko is now the latest youth player to progress to the senior squad.

“Caleb Stanko is a flexible midfielder who [is good on both sides of the ball] and which can always cause surprising moments in the game,” Freiburg sporting director Jochen Saier said recently. ”We are very pleased that another talent from the Freiburg youth academy is in the next step of his career with us.”

It’s been part of a calculated progression for Stanko, who believes that he is ready for the transition into one of the world’s strongest leagues.

“Training with the first team, a lot of it has to do with confidence,” Stanko explained. “I’m really thankful that over these past few months I’ve been able to train with the first team because you get into a routine. You get used to playing with the guys so it’s easier and you get more confident. You feel more confident because you’re around them all the time. You don’t view them as these big stars anymore. You view them as equals."

"It just makes the playing field level but I definitely have a lot to learn before I can be contributor or starting.”

Stanko was never part of U.S. Soccer’s residency program at the U-17 level, but he has significant experience with youth national teams. In his early teenage years, he was part of the U.S. U-14 and U-15 national team program but then fell out of the picture. He was part of one U-18 camp but it wasn’t until a joint U-20/U-23 camp in Germany in 2011 when he broke back into the fold with a strong showing.

Over the next year, Stanko would emerge as one of leaders of the U-20 team, playing alongside the likes of Cody Cropper, Marc Pelosi, Will Packwood, Luis Gil, Wil Trapp, and DeAndre Yedlin. Wearing the captain’s armband at the start of the U-20 World Cup, Stanko enjoyed his experience at the tournament in Turkey despite the fact that the U.S. did not advance out of a difficult group that included Ghana, France, and Spain.

“Any team that plays against teams such as France, Spain, and Ghana, no matter what age group, you’re going to learn something,” Stanko said. “I learned how fast the game is. Especially the Spaniards and how great they were. I would say my overall soccer got better from those games but also the level of competitiveness that these teams brings is something that I’ve learned because of the U-20 World Cup.”

One of Stanko’s closest friends in American soccer is Cropper, the goalkeeper who himself is on the verge of breaking through at Southampton in the English Premier League. The two have known each other for many years and Cropper has always been impressed with Stanko’s leadership, noting that Stanko has tendency to wear the armband wherever he plays.

In 2016, Cropper and Stanko are likely to be part of the Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro and Cropper sees a big future for Stanko, especially at the full national team level where defensive midfielders like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman will likely be phased out.

“Eric Miller and I grew up playing against Caleb, we always knew Caleb was a leader,” Cropper explained. “He’s very demanding. He holds very high standards for himself which in turn rubs off on everybody else. He’s not a player like myself—I get agitated and yell at people. That’s my way of lighting a fire. Caleb is different. Caleb picks somebody up.”

“He’s developed into the player that Freiburg and the U.S. national team want and need,” Cropper added. “Eventually players like Caleb Stanko will lead the U.S. national team in a World Cup. He’s not only a leader but he’s also a very technical player. He’s aggressive on the field.”

Stanko, a product of the Vardar Soccer Club in Michigan, impressed on a trial at Freiburg at the age of 18, and elected to join the club and bypass college. For American-born players, heading to Europe as a teenager often proves difficult. Even for talented athletes, off-field issues such as homesickness and culture shock can prove to be too much to overcome.

Stanko was able to fight through these problems, but it wasn’t easy. As a deeply religious person, he credits his faith and his family for helping him and in the end, it made him better.

“It was very tough for me from the beginning,” Stanko said. “The first year and a half were really hard. I had to live on my own while not having any family here. You had all these guys competing for spots even at a really young age. It was tough. But I think I’ve grown from that. I’m a stronger person now. I think overall I’m stronger I’m a stronger player because of it.”

Stanko and Freiburg will continue their preseason on Friday with a friendly against Aalen of the 2.Bundesliga. The club’s first competitive game of the season will take place on August 17 with a German Cup match against Eintracht Trier. The following week on August 23, Freiburg will visit Eintracht Frankfurt in its Bundesliga opener.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter and share your thoughts below.

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