Eight years after boarding a plane to Germany to embark on his professional soccer career, Caleb Stanko is confident the time is right for his return home and further it in Major League Soccer.
Stanko, a US international who earned his lone cap in 2016, joined SC Freiburg in 2011 but never quite broke through for meaningful minutes in the first team. Earlier this month he moved to FC Cincinnati, ending a frustrating but beneficial chunk of his life in Germany.
All of a sudden he was a player with options again, facing a pivotal decision looking for the right move. The 25-year-old opted for FC Cincy, but the league's latest expansion side weren't the only club vying for his signature.
“Cincinnati just looked like such a great place to play," Stanko told MLSsoccer.com.
“There were three other offers," Stanko added, specifying one other offer in MLS and two in Europe he considered before choosing FC Cincy. "Cincinnati is brand new, so I get to be a part of a whole new culture and club that can achieve so much. We can have a great season our first year and shoot really high next season.”
This season promises a path to a first-team role clearer than accustomed for Stanko, who made just 11 appearances (two starts) for the Freiburg first team over the years. Most of his professional minutes came with Freiburg II, where he played 79 games predominantly in the fourth tier of German soccer, as well as on loan at Swiss league side FC Vaduz.
“There’s so many factors that go into that," Stanko explained about his lack of game time. "Sometimes it comes down to who the coach wants to play, sometimes it comes down to business decisions, financial decisions. I think everyone understands there are certain names in the league that have to play, and certain names that could be sold. Of course those may sound like excuses, but that’s why I gave it so many years, because I wanted to overcome these barriers.”
Throughout his time at the club, Freiburg kept the same manager. Stanko may have benefitted from managerial turnover that is common in Europe, but he still worked to fight his way into the manager's plan every day. Of his time with Freiburg, he wouldn't change a thing.
“It was quite difficult there," Stanko admitted. "I had problems with the coach, you could say, just with breaking through. Positionally it was not always my best — many of the games I played were at center back. It was super frustrating, but I had a good run and I learned so much there. I don’t regret it at all.”
Drifting away from his preferred role in central midfield isn't expected to be an issue in Cincinnati.
“My best position is definitely center mid and that is where the coach sees me," Stanko said. “(Alan Koch) did say that he likes my versatility, and if needed, I can play center back. Especially if we play five in the back, where we’d have three center backs, that’s also a good position for me. I’d get the ball a lot, get to move a lot.”
The midfielder aims to be on the field as much as possible and has targeted 30-plus appearances as a personal goal with a trip to the playoffs.
Stanko is also looking forward to seeing more familiar faces in the stands in Cincinnati, which is about 300 miles from his hometown of Holly, Michigan, well closer and easier to travel than the 4,178 miles that separate Holly from Freiburg.
Stanko's inner circle have already added to Cincy's list of inaugural season ticket holders.
“It’s so nice to be able to be so close to home," he said. "I have tons of family and friends who are all close to Cincinnati. They’re all calling and saying ‘hey I’m getting season tickets!’ It’s such a great feeling. Before, it’d be nice to have the occasional friend come over to see a game but now they’ll be at every game. If I go to another city, I’ll know people there and I’ll get them tickets. It’s just a special feeling.”
With fewer than two handfuls of players returning from FC Cincy's USL season in 2018, the roster will start almost from scratch by way of continuity. That gives an extra sense of urgency to this preseason, in which Stanko and co. will look to form cohesion and chemistry.
“I’m very excited, we have a great group of guys and are very talented," Stanko said. "The biggest thing for us is going to be coming together as quickly as possible because there’s players from all around the world with all different leagues. This club is starting from the bottom. … If we can get that together quickly, we’re going to have a great season.”