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.”