AMSTERDAM – Even if he is not quite on the verge of a first team debut by season's end, Freiburg II midfielder Caleb Stanko knows it is the direction he's heading.
The Michigan native fully realizes that 20-year-olds typically do not get the call when a club manager is fighting to stay in the Bundesliga, let alone at a club that has suddenly gone 3-0-1 to move five points clear of the danger line with six games to play.
However, Stanko is quite comfortable in his current learning station. By becoming a key man for a Freiburg II side chasing their Regionalliga title, not only has he dressed for a first-team match in both the Bundesliga and the Europa League, but the youngster has now happily joined first team training on a full-time basis.
"At least I am seeing steps toward the first team," Stanko told MLSsoccer.com by phone from southern Germany. "I think I still need time to get adjusted to the speed of play."
When he does finally break through to the first team, it will be as a defensive midfielder and not as the center back stateside fans may remember from last summer's FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
"It's my least favorite position to play," said Stanko of center back, where he worked all 90 minutes in painful but instructive group-phase losses to Spain and eventual bronze medalists Ghana. "Defensive midfield is definitely my favorite position. It feels natural to me; I can use my skills to pass the ball forward."
"To be honest," he chuckled, "center back is boring."
Though not the ideal experience from a competitive standpoint, the US U-20 team's World Cup games acted as a catalyst for what has become a strong Freiburg II campaign for Stanko.
"The whole experience of playing against top players who are possibly going to be the best players in the world definitely gave me confidence going into this season," he stated.
Stanko currently leads all Freiburg II players in minutes, more than 300 ahead of his nearest teammate. He has been replaced for just seven minutes of his 25 starts, going the distance in the last 23 for a team allowing one goal per game and sitting three points back of first place as they hit the home stretch.
More encouraging is the fact that Stanko has occasionally been acting as skipper when regular captain Tim Albutat misses out. This privilege is not handed out lightly in Germany, so Stanko takes it as a sign Freiburg views him as part of their first team near-future.
"Being able to wear the captain's band in a foreign country, being able to lead a team [where] this is not your native language, is such an honor," he said. "It's a nice thing to see from the club, because it's like they're saying they see leadership quality and see the work you're putting in."
One reason for the honor could be that Stanko's club sees he is perfectly content to be putting in that work. The American knows he is not ready for the Bundesliga just yet but is starting to envision a time when he is. And it's beginning to look a lot like autumn.
"Every practice, whether I'm with the first team or the second team, I know I'm going to be around guys who will make me better," declared Stanko.
When asked what the story may be for both him and Freiburg come next season, he offered up a thrilling vision: "Realistically ... me being able to make my debut in August in the Bundesliga."