STANKO EMBRACING UNDERDOG ROLE
After being drawn into a group with Spain, Ghana, and France for the U20-World Cup, U.S. captain Caleb Stanko is confident in his team's ability to compete against the world's strongest nations.
Stanko, 19, was named team captain by coach Tab Ramos before last month's qualifying tournament. With the team thin in central defense, Stanko was forced to play out of position in the backline where he performed admirably.
Normally a central midfielder, Stanko has been a consistent presence in nearly every U-20 camp this cycle despite lacking experience with U.S. youth national teams at younger levels. Over the past year, Stanko has impressed Ramos to the point where he is a key starter for the U-20 team and his versatility to play several positions has helped the team throughout the cycle.
"The qualifiers in Mexico were incredible for me since it was my first time with the U.S. in an actual competition," Stanko told YA. "It was great to see the guys become more of a team as the tournament went on, and much of our success can be attributed to the progression of the team chemistry during the tournament. I think we realized that it is going to take being a team in order to be successful in the long run."
Stanko left the U.S. team to return to his club, SC Freiburg, after a 4-2 win over Canada in the quarterfinals secured qualification to this summer's U-20 World Cup in Turkey. Last Monday he watched the U-20 World Cup draw and watched as the U.S. team was placed into Group A with France, Spain, and Ghana.
The draw instantly had many people labeling Group A as the tournament's "Group of Death." The tournament's format is forgiving as the top four third place teams also advance from group play. Not to mention as the underdog, the U.S. team could rise to the occasion.
It wouldn't be the first time either. At the 2005 U-20 World Cup, the U.S team finished first in its group over Germany, Egypt, and an Argentina team that feavtured Lionel Messi. In 2007, it finished first ahead of South Korea, Poland, and a Brazilian team anchored by Alexandre Pato.
This U.S. team has a similarly difficult draw at its World Cup but Stanko is excited for the team's potential against two countries known for producing the best young talent in Europe.
"Both teams are experienced, but I am excited that we get the opportunity to play against some of the best teams and players in the world," Stanko said. "They will be very difficult games for us because of the quality of the teams, but what game in the world cup is going to be easy? That being said, I think the "underdog" factor will play a big part in our games. I believe in this team and the character we have to overcome adversity, as well as we have many talented guys, which will also shock the teams we play."
In not certain yet of Stanko will be the U.S captain again for the World Cup but does appear to be likely given the leadership role he has taken within the team. When he was presented with the armband for the qualifying tournament, it was an honor for the Michigan native.
Stanko considered the armband an important responsibility of representing both the current team and the history of what American soccer has come to represent internationally.
"Being named team captain was such an honor, of course," Stanko explained. "I don't know if I would say I was surprised because no matter what happened I was going to try and be an example through my work ethic, encouragement and instructing on the field. The U.S. captain's armband represents the past leaders and pioneers for American soccer internationally. Without their hard work and effort, U.S. Soccer would not be what it is today."
The past year has also seen Stanko continue to progress at SC Freiburg. When he joined the club in 2011, he began to play with its A-Junioren or U-19 team and last year helped the club win the German A-Junoren Cup with a win over Hertha Berlin in the final.
This year Stanko has progressed and has been able to earn time with Freiburg's U-23 team. The transition has been a challenge for Stanko but he feels that the increased competition for playing time has made him a better player.
"This year is very different compared to last year," Stanko concluded. "The U-23 team has many quality players, maybe even too many, competing for playing time. I have been working hard this season, but it has been a difficult year for many of the younger players on our team. I have been fortunate enough to play in several games this season at different positions. One advantage to having a team with many quality players is my development has increased because of the quality and intensity of trainings."