The players and coaches have widely considered head coach Jaap Stam’s arrival on American shores six weeks ago as the metaphorical beginning to the 2020 season. Position battles restarted and depth charts were realigned.
After not playing in FC Cincinnati’s first two matches of the season, he featured in all three of the club’s MLS is Back Tournament group stage games. In the last two, which FCC have won, he started and offered stability amidst a tactical overhaul.
Stanko’s recent performances are a combination of coaches recognizing a player’s efforts in training and a player seizing an opportunity.
“There’s a whole lot of competition in the middle,” Stanko said. “I’ve had to earn my spot, and I think I’ve been proving that in practice over these last few weeks. In the game against Columbus (Crew SC), I thought I brought a lot of energy and stability to the middle. I was able to prove that once again when I got that start against Atlanta (United FC), and that’s just given me more confidence.”
Arriving from Germany last year, Stanko’s 2019 role saw him feature as a holding midfielder who often did the dirty work, breaking opponent’s possession spells and winning aerial duels. He made 16 starts in 23 appearances.
But Stanko dropped down the depth chart when the 2020 regular season started, as the team opted for a more possessive, creative approach in a 4-3-3. In the two opening matches, the midfield trio was Frankie Amaya, Allan Cruz and Haris Medunjanin.
With Siem de Jong another option entering the MLS is Back Tournament, that added more competition to a center midfield group already filled with quality.
But since Stam implemented a 5-3-2 with the team sitting deeper and more compact, Stanko’s become one of the beneficiaries of the new strategy. Playing in a system that fits his attributes, he’s epitomized the coach’s belief in rewarding those who stand out with opportunities.
“(Players have been able to) get the opportunities to show themselves,” Stam said. “I’ve always said it to the team and let everybody know that if you’re working very hard, you’re very eager to do well and you’re bringing what we think you need to bring, then you get the opportunities to play as well.
“Sometimes that happens, and Caleb is a very good example in doing that. He’s been working very hard, gets the opportunity and he’s been doing very well for us in these particular games.”
Players seizing opportunities has been crucial and could be even more important as FC Cincinnati begins play in the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi on Tuesday night against the Portland Timbers.
While there’s a focus on building for the future, the Orange and Blue are very much playing win-now matches to advance in the mid-summer competition. The 5-3-2 is becoming Cincinnati’s new identity, and Stanko said it’s been difficult, but worthwhile for the team to implement the formation.
“(Stam) brings a very intense, tactical, disciplined approach to the game, which I really appreciate,” Stanko said. “That hasn’t always been case with the past coaches, which is just a different style. But it definitely plays into my style.
“I really respect the guy so much for what he’s done as a player, and I think that he’s really implemented a style that fits our team … It’s been so far really good to work with him and I’m excited for whatever the future holds.”