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Caleb Stanko

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U.S. U-20 MNT Utilizing Caleb Stanko's Versatility

Former Vardar Academy Player Taking on Captain Role at Center Back at 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship

U.S. Under-20 captain and Holly, Mich., native Caleb Stanko has spent the past couple of years moving his way up the totem pole at SC Freiburg in Germany. The 19-year-old has typically played in the midfield, but for Freiburg’s U-23s he has regularly gotten the call at center back.

“The last six or seven games with Freiburg I’ve played at center back, which was unusual because I’m not a typical center back,” Stanko said.

A defining characteristic of the U-20 MNT is the ability for many of the players to take on interchangeable roles, and the team captain certainly is one of the more visible figures. The USA is preparing for Tuesday’s important quarterfinal match against Canada in the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Puebla, Mexico (6 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer, Univision Deportes), and the winner earns a berth to the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.

Stanko and the U.S. defense are coming off a 1-0 victory against Costa Rica to win Group A, and for a second straight match he was paired alongside Shane O’Neill – another player who is just getting accustomed to the center back role.

Stanko admits the holding midfield position is his preference, but for the betterment of the team, he is taking on the role with no hesitancy.

“If it helps the team win, of course I’m going to play there,” Stanko said. “We definitely improved after the first game. That was the first time Shane and I had played together at center back, and we improved quite a bit by the second game. I like playing with him. He’s a good player.”

Stanko hails from a three-season stint in U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy at Michigan-based Vardar (now Vardar SC Freiburg), and he had been a part of the club since the U-7 level.

“I was originally with the Flint Steelers, and when we played against Vardar they asked me if I wanted to try out,” Stanko said. “I heard of Vardar because it was a bigger club in my state, so I said ‘of course,’ went there for the tryout, they liked me and I was there ever since.”

In his three Academy seasons, Stanko appreciated the benefits of the caliber of play but most importantly the emphasis on training.

“By the third year, the team and the league improved, going from some unnecessary tournaments to focusing more on training,” Stanko said. “We were training four times a week, and that’s huge. U.S. Soccer made some great steps to compete on an international level, because overseas in Germany, France or anywhere Europe, they’re playing five or six times a week.”

Stanko’s final season with Vardar peaked with a victory against Crossfire at the 2009-10 U-17/18 Academy championship at The Home Depot Center. Overcoming a 1-0 deficit, Vardar scored a goal before halftime and added two more in the second half for a 3-1 win.

“It’s probably one of my favorite teams,” Stanko said. “We didn’t have the most skilled team, but we were one of those real teams where everybody fought for each other and we knew we could win by hard work. That’s what we did. It was a great feeling to win that way. We were underdogs in every game.”

Freiburg already was taking a look at Stanko before Finals Week, first spotting him during training at a little park by Stanko’s house. The championship simply reaffirmed the club scout’s intuition, and after Stanko finished high school, he played for the club on a trial basis for three months before signing.

“I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and a lot of good things could come from it,” Stanko said. “In my first season, I played 30 minutes at center midfield in my first game, and throughout that first half of the season I played forward, center back – all over. It takes a few trainings to get adjusted to a position, so it was really hard. But eventually I started playing mostly center midfield last year.”

Center back is Stanko’s primary focus with the team looking to advance to the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup. There have been challenges along the way, but Stanko has adapted like any other role thrown his way.

“There’s certainly a mental challenge,” Stanko said. “When you’re a forward your goal is to create or score goals, and as a defender your main goal is to prevent goals. I remember one game at Freiburg I started the game as a center forward and in that same game went to center back and played against the other team’s No. 9. You get used to it and become versatile.”

Working his way up the ranks both at Freiburg and at an international level, Stanko is fully in tune with the importance of putting together a top-caliber effort and result at this stage.

“The only way we’re going to benefit personally is by playing together as a whole team,” Stanko said. “It’s an honor for us to play for the United States and represent them. We’re driven to grow as players and professionals. I’ve learned a lot, both as a person and as a soccer player.”

Turning Pro: Michigan Native Caleb Stanko Builds a Career at Freiburg

Michigan native Caleb Stanko moved to Germany from Development Academy club Vardar nearly eight months ago. After a three-month trial period, the center midfielder signed for Freiburg in Germany, joining the club’s setup in his first step as a professional. But as most young professionals learn, the path to becoming a successful pro is littered with ups and downs.

“When I first came, it was really tough because I had all these new things,” said Stanko. “The guys know you’re new, and then you make a mistake and everyone’s getting on you.”

Off the field, it’s also a new experience. In Stanko’s case, that meant living away from home and alone for the first time. The 18-year old could have moved into the club’s housing for youth players, but he would have had to move out on his nineteenth birthday. That meant he opted for the apartment on his own: bold move.

“Of course it’s a lot to get used to!” he says, when talking about living on his own. “But I like to cook, and my family is a big cooking family. Still it was definitely a culture shock.”

But little by little Stanko gained confidence on the field, taking each training session day-by-day and working on improving his game at Freiburg.

“You have to pay your dues,” said Stanko. “You have to show everyone that you’re willing to work hard, and you have to show the coaches you want to work hard and be on the team. You can’t just come in as a prima donna.”

He also got used to the life in Germany, a culture consumed by soccer. Whether you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, you’re guaranteed to see anything and everything about “fußball.”

“It’s great,” said Stanko. “People’s lives in Freiburg are all about soccer. I really like that. You have something to talk about with everyone.”

When a player turns professional, he or she can’t really know what to expect. It’s a new experience that players have to live through and adapt to in their own way. But even with those ups and downs, Stanko talked about how playing for Vardar helped prepare him to make the jump to the professional ranks.

“The last two years in the Development Academy really helped my game a lot,” said Stanko. “We played against better teams and were exposed to different types of games.”

With the camp wrapped up in Germany, Stanko will headed back to Freiburg with the experience of a U-23 Men’s National Team camp under his belt. But if he’s learned anything during his first eight months in Germany, it’s that there’s no time to rest on any laurels, and you have to keep moving forward.

“You just have to dig deep and keep working hard,” said Stanko. “Some weeks are good, some weeks are bad, but you know that you have to keep working week to week.”

Stanko’s next trip back home to the U.S. will be during the winter break. All the teams in Germany take off for some of December and most of January, and Stanko will be heading back to his family in the Midwest. What’s the first thing he’ll do?

“Going to go see my mom and give her a hug,” he said with a smile.

Even though he’s managed living on his own in Freiburg, it’s always nice to come home.

Under-23s: In 2011, was named to the U-23 team’s November training camp in Duisburg, Germany … Under-20s: For the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, Stanko has been named the team captain by U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. In 2012, and will continue to serve that role in teh 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Stanko made seven starts and logged 563 minutes, playing in every minute of the team’s trip to the Marbella Cup in October.

Stanko signed with Freiburg in August of 2011 after a three-month trial period with the Bundesliga side. He plays for the reserve team in Germany’s fourth division as both a defensive midfielder and center back.

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