Commitment, determination and focus: the attributes for any player hoping to make it in the Bundesliga are those very same qualities that have driven Freiburg and USA international Caleb Stanko toward his aim of becoming a first-team regular in Germany's top division and breaking out from the shadows of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie.
It's been an often trying road for the 24-year-old, who arrived in Baden-Württemberg in 2011 with dreams of making it in the big time. What has taken immense hard work and dedication, with friends and family a long way away, finally paid off for the Holly, Michigan-born player with a first Bundesliga start in 2017/18. Certainly one of Stanko's major highlights of last year was being chosen by coach Christian Streich to begin the Matchday 11 encounter against Schalke - a Bundesliga first for the versatile defensive midfielder.
"That game against Schalke changed my standing at [Freiburg]," Stanko recently told German publication Kicker. "It showed that I can compete in the Bundesliga. I wasn’t nervous, but excited. I’d waited so long for this opportunity and now I had found my way there, I was ready. It was a dream come true and the reason I came to Germany. To play in the Bundesliga was a huge achievement for me."
That Freiburg suffered a 1-0 loss against a Royal Blues team pushing for Champions League qualification, and currently sitting second in the standings, was no major setback. Indeed, Stanko's performance in a three-man back line during the encounter earned him high ratings across the board in Germany and presented coach Streich with an interesting conundrum in terms of future selections.
Watch: Stanko - "Proud to be part of this team ..."
There from the outset following Stanko's arrival in Germany, the tactician's attitude of tough love toward the American may not have been initially fully appreciated by a young player trying to find his feet within a new culture and different surroundings to what he had previously been used to at US academy Vardar SC. However, the former U.S. U-20 international now understands the method in Streich's hard appraisals.
"Only later did I realise that he criticised me to make me better," Stanko explained. "It helped me to focus on the essentials," he added. "In the beginning I took [the criticism] personally, sometimes it was because of the whole change in my life and being alone and too stressed to focus in training."
From that unsure 18-year-old, a much more streetwise player has emerged. Aided not only by a loan spell at Swiss Football League side FC Vaduz in 2016/17, but by his willingness to always give 100 per cent in every training session, Stanko is earning ever more admirers as the months pass.
"He has worked extremely hard on himself and made a big step forward against all the odds," Freiburg sporting director Jochen Saier said. "He is compact and physical and makes opponents hurt. We’re pleased with him and excited to see if he can move forward in the Rückrunde.”
"It's been difficult, but I always believed in my quality and worked hard every day," Stanko - who has amassed a personal best 186 Bundesliga minutes at the halfway stage of the season - said. Missing family celebrations and his best friend's wedding hurt, but these are often the necessary sacrifices made by those aiming for the very top.
A USMNT debut earned under former coach Jürgen Klinsmann in the September 2016 win against Trinidad and Tobago - so far his only appearance at senior international level - demonstrated the heights that Stanko is capable of scaling. But for now, the focus is on, "Playing as much as possible and above all helping the team avoid relegation."