By DAN KARELL
It’s been a long and frustrating road for Danny Szetela.
The former U.S. Olympic Team player and past U.S. Men’s National Team call-up has been out of soccer since early 2010, after a knee injury and resulting surgery lost him his place on D.C. United. Two more knee surgeries later, and Szetela now finally on the comeback trail.
This Saturday, when the New York Cosmos face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Szetela could mark the first pro playing appearance since October 24, 2009. That is 1,379 days. Or three years, nine months, and ten days from when the bottom began to drop out.
All the time away from the game has helped Szetela appreciate the time he has with his new team, the New York Cosmos.
“It feels great,” Szetela told SBI at the New York Cosmos media day on Monday about returning to professional soccer. “It was a long three years. You’ve got your ups and downs in this sport, and unfortunately injuries come with that. It feels great to be back out there running, and the knee is feeling good.”
Prior to Szetela’s first injury to his right knee with D.C. United in 2010, his future was still bright, despite returning to Major League Soccer after spells in Spain and Italy. As a 16-year-old, Szetela was selected by the Columbus Crew in a weighted lottery during 2004 season, joining Major League Soccer just weeks after graduating from the U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Florida.
While he made only 34 appearances with the Crew from 2004-2007, he was a valuable member of the U.S. Under-20 squad, helping lead the team at the 2007 CONCACAF Under-20 Championships and later that summer in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. The U.S. finished in the quarterfinals in that tournament, and Szetela scored three times.
His international performances earned him a move to Racing Santander, where he failed to break into the first team, despite a positive season with Brescia in Italy in 2008/2009 in Serie B.
But Szetela’s career was stopped in it’s tracks by three knee surgeries, the last of which replaced his meniscus with one from a cadaver. Earlier this year, Szetela began his return to fitness, and he proved himself in the U.S. Open Cup with Icon FC, making it to the second round proper after starting in the qualifying rounds. Although he’s healthy and training with his teammates, the 26-year-old midfielder knows that he still has a long way to go before he is at the level he once was.
“(I’ve learned) just how different of a player I am,” Szetela remarked. “I’m still every day getting better and better, getting back to where I was. Unfortunately when you have three years off and then train and sign with a professional team again, you’re not just going to snap your fingers and be back to where you were.
“You’ve just got to continue to work hard and see what the future brings. Everyday it’s a pleasure to be out there on the field.”
Now ten years since becoming a professional soccer player himself, Szetela looks at the wide-eyed youngsters who are hungry for a chance and is thankful. He says that it’s important to have young players in the locker room so the veterans get a reality check, and can understand that one bad game could mean losing a starting spot or a key role on the team.
Sometimes you need those young guys in the locker room,” Szetela said,” to see where you are. I remember when I was their age and I was like ‘oh these guys are old,’ and now I’m that old guy on the team. It’s great to have the young guys around and to be a leader on the team.”
August 3 marks not just the likely return of Szetela to professional soccer but the Cosmos return to official games as well. Nearly 30 years ago, the Cosmos played their final North American Soccer League game, a 1-0 loss on the road to the Chicago Sting.
With the return of the NASL, and the return of the Cosmos as a professional franchise, Szetela said he is looking forward for the team to be back on the field and for the name that resonates around the world to matter in the present, not just the past.
“It’s going to feel great, not only for myself being back after three years, but also the Cosmos, who have been gone for 30 years,” Szetela said. “Guys are so excited, I’m excited, and I just can’t wait to walk on that field on Saturday night, starting or not, it doesn’t matter.
“Just being in the atmosphere, there’s going to be a lot of people and I’m just excited and I can’t wait until Saturday night.”