Holly's Caleb Stanko forges path in German game

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

Caleb Stanko heard the litany of reasons why at 17 he should not bypass college and go straight to Germany to pursue a professional soccer career.

He only listened to one voice as to why he should go: His own.

Caleb Stanko, 24, joined SC Freiburg as a 17-year-old.

"It's always been my dream to play in Europe," said Stanko, 24, in a telephone interview from Freiburg. "I had the opportunity and I took it."

Some seven years later, Stanko is only a step over the touchline from realizing his dream of playing in one of the world's elite soccer leagues. He's yet to make a first-team appearance for SC Freiburg in the German Bundesliga this season, but he's on the verge.

Last week, the defensive midfielder played a full 90 minutes in a friendly with French Ligue 1 side Racing Strasbourg.

Stanko's proved himself more versatile, stepping in as a defender during a preseason encounter with Dutch Eredivisie's Feyenoord. He drew praise for his American-style aggression, pace and leaping abilities in the fill-in role.

SC Frieburg’s manager Christian Streich called Stanko a professional with “an extraordinary attitude.

“He plays a part in every single training session and takes responsibility for teammates by translating for the English players,” Streich said. “He has bad luck in that other players are ahead by a nose in his position. It is important for him to play.

“There we have to find a solution.”

A loan to Swiss League FC Vaduz last season enabled Stanko to garner more playing time and become more steady on the ball. He appeared 27 times for the Liechtenstein-based club.

SC Freiburg returned to the Bundesliga last season after spending 2015-16 in 2. Bundesliga where Stanko featured in five league matches and one German Cup game.

It’s a hard to fathom he would have gained similar experience had he remained in Michigan.

After starring four years at Oakland Christian High, Stanko verbally committed to play at Michigan but changed his mind while also playing for Vardar in the U.S. Development Academy where he was spotted by SC Freiburg.

"Maybe other guys can go to college first," said Stanko, who also weighed going to Michigan State, Duke, Georgetown and Virginia. "Maybe that's a good step for them. It was the right step for me to come straight over at 17. It was absolutely hard, but was definitely worth it.

“So many people said, 'Hey you're giving up a huge scholarship. Why don't you just go later? Do you really want to be that far away from your friends and your family? Is it really going to be worth it, what if you don't like it?' There were definitely people who said maybe you shouldn't do it, maybe you should play it safe. I choose to come over and just give it my best shot and take advantage of great opportunity."

Stanko's career trek somewhat parallels that of Plymouth’s Josh Gatt.

After being a standout at Detroit Catholic Central, the midfielder turned down a scholarship at Indiana and, like Stanko, pursued a professional career in Europe

Gatt, 26, prospered in Norway with Molde and earned a U.S. national team call-up before a serious knee injury caused him to miss an entire 2014 season. The troublesome knee further led to more time on the sidelines. Gatt’s returned stateside and has appeared in 18 games with Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids this season.

MLS is not on Stanko's radar.

SC Freiburg's US midfielder Caleb Stanko

"I'm really focusing on Europe; I believe I can make it here,"  said Stanko, who is taking online courses at Liberty University. "I believe I am close.

“MLS is a league I believe that is getting better and better each year and it's very attractive, but my dream is to first play in the Bundesliga, in a top league in Europe, and I want to achieve that dream before I move back to the U.S. Not to say anything negative about MLS, but first dream is to play here."

U.S. international and LA Galaxy’s Jermaine Jones believes more young American players need to follow leads of Stanko and Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, especially in light of the U.S. getting dumped out of next year’s World Cup.

“I think if you want to make the next step, you have to go over there (to Europe),” Jones said in a video rant posted on Instagram after U.S. manager Bruce Arena resigned.

Stanko, who played with the U20s and has one national team cap, termed the U.S. World Cup exit “tragic” and said, “mistakes were made.”

Since he arrived as a teenager, Stanko has become immersed in German culture. Freiburg is in the southwest part of the country.

"The most important thing is they love soccer, they love it so much," he said. "You get amazing fans and great stadiums and great games. That's what I live for and I love to do."