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MLS Spotlight: Zizzo shining for Timbers after overcoming injury

Photo by Patricia Giobetti/


Sal Zizzo chuckled at the notion but nonetheless knew it was true. For the Portland Timbers midfielder, the circumstances surrounding his torn ACL last October were about as ideal as could be.

Zizzo, first off, knew what he was up against. When he injured the same knee two years earlier with German club Hannover 96, the damage actually was far more extensive. If he could come back once, he could do it again.

There also was the matter of timing. By going down in the third-to-last match of the campaign, he saw the silver lining presented by the offseason ahead.

“If there was a time for it to happen,” Zizzo said, “I guess you could say that game would have been it.”

It was a positive attitude that lifted Zizzo throughout his rehabilitation. Just seven months later, he was back on the field for Portland, coming on as a substitute in mid-May for a scoreless draw against the same Houston Dynamo side he suffered the injury against.

Zizzo, it turned out, was sidelined for just 11 league matches. After using a blend of starts and appearances off the bench to round himself into form, the 25-year-old has started nine of the Timbers’ past 10 matches, compiling a goal and four assists.

“It says a lot about his work ethic,” Portland captain Jack Jewsbury said. “Sometimes guys end up with injuries that get them down because you’re watching from the sidelines for most of the year. But he’s continued to stick with it, persevere through some tough times, and it’s great to see him come into his own.”

Over the years, Zizzo has become somewhat of an expert in the perseverance department.

Following a standout performance for the U.S. at the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, Zizzo departed UCLA early to sign with Hannover that summer. The future, it seemed, was bright.

As Zizzo now realizes, “I was a little bit naive.” He soon found his brash style of running on the ball at defenders wouldn’t fly unless he picked his moments more judiciously. Adjusting to the culture was another barrier for the California native. When he did start building momentum on the field, the October 2009 injury to his ACL and LCL derailed it.

Zizzo, who earned his only senior national team camp in August 2007, would spend most of his three seasons in Germany toiling with the reserves, making just eight Bundesliga appearances.

“Being a young American in the Bundesliga and not being able to speak the language, the hardest thing there is to kind of get your chance,” Zizzo said. “I look back and wish I could have been given a starting chance, a run at a couple of games just to see how I would have done. And I felt like I would have done well.

“But it’s a lot of pressure in that league when you’re dealing with relegation and lots of money on the line. It’s tough for a coach to make those types of tough decisions. To play a young guy that’s never really played before, it’s kind of throwing himself on the line.”

Once his Hannover contract expired, Zizzo in July 2010 entered MLS via the allocation process, joining Chivas USA before being shipped to Portland the subsequent offseason. He logged 30 matches last year before his injury, finally getting the first-team minutes his career had been devoid of.

While a torn knee ligament can be devastating to a winger who leans on pace the way Zizzo does, he has had no issues this season settling back into his role as a speedster on the right flank.

“You know he’s going to create some dangerous things,” Jewsbury said. “He’s a guy I definitely wouldn’t be wanting to play outside back against because with his speed alone, he just glides by you — and makes it look really easy.”

Looking back, Zizzo has no regrets about delaying his path to MLS by pursuing his dream abroad. The opportunity, no doubt, didn’t pan out the way he envisioned it. And yes, it’s safe to say he hasn’t reached his full potential.

But as a player in his mid-20s, Zizzo can cherish the experience while still keeping time on his side.

“I would still do everything the same,” Zizzo said. “You maybe only have that chance once in your career. I wouldn’t change it. The experience that I got, the relationships, the people, and just learning the German side of soccer and just their mentality, day in, day out at training, is invaluable.”


  1. I had no idea that zizzo was such a top prospect in his younger years.

    Needless to say, he has been a pleasant surprise after a pretty weak season last year. He definitely developed some touch to add to the speed game end of the season. He needs to work on his left foot and his moves back to the middle of the field. This will help balance his “down the line” speed move.

    He also needs to develop some sides for the meatball sub at zizzo FCC (food cart). Best sub in town!

  2. I love these stories. I’m 16 and an aspiring college soccer player and I had my second ACL surgery 3 months ago. Players like him inspire me and motivate me to work even harder to step onto the pitch again.

  3. Sal Zizzo finally breaks through the headlines. One of the dynamic player I keep track of in MLS and the only reason I’d watch Portland.
    Hightlights that include:
    Freddy Adu, Sal Zizzo, Lee Nyugen, Benny Feilhaber, Eddie Johnson

    are all I look forward too at the beginning of the week

  4. Recently went to a Timbers game (not a Timbers fan, but wanted to see Jeld-Wen) and the only Timbers player that really impressed was Zizzo. He was very dangerous on the right and made some really good decisions. If he can stay healthy he should be an MLS all-star at some point.

  5. Great article…

    This guy has shown the ability to run past defenders into open space and pass or put something on frame with efficiency

    In many of Portland’s games (particularly, in a mid-season match against RBNY) Zizzo looked like the best player on the pitch.

    The talent is there. Judging by the comments, the maturity seems to be brewing also.

    Portland needs Zizzo to build the team they seem to want .

    Fast, athletic and capable of physically overmatching teams with skill and again speed.

    Would love to see a solid middle of the par/ creative type pair with Zizzo (if they keep him) and the other promising pieces on the squad.

  6. I didn’t know anything was shining in Portland. The current weather report is overcast and the forecast is more of the same. What is their record?

  7. No rundown of his career is complete without mentioning that 2007 U-20, he looked so promising there. His career is a warning for everyone who says that Europe is always the better option, getting games matters. He was one of the brightest prospects of his generation, and now he’s 25 with not even 60 pro appearances.

    • I think that’s right. Though the injuries can happen at any level, any place — the circumstances worked against Zizzo in ways they would not have elsewhere. Sal was a revelation in that tournament — if you made a list of the best US youth player performances in a youth Cup, Zizzo would be in the top 5, with Donovan, Adu, Rogers, Altidore (you could make cases for Beasley, EJ, Szetela, Twellman and Convey, if you’re going to round out a top 10).

      I was surprised at how little interest there was in MLS when he returned, but I expect big things out of Sal, as he gets a chance to show his stuff. He’ll never be quite the same player as he might have been without the injuries and maybe without wasting the time in Germany, but he’s gonna be one of the league’s best.

      • Interesting how so many of those young players didn’t reach their level due to injuries: Zizzo, Convey, Szetela, and Twellman.

        When it comes to youth development, many teams still don’t know how to truly develop young talent. You cannot expect a teenager or someone who is in their low 20s to play game in and out constantly. Especially US players who are used to college soccer until their mid 20s. You must work with young players through their injuries and prevent them by not over playing them.

        A lot of our youth end up dead in the water in Germany. I think Holland’s slower pace and focus on technical skills is the ideal place to be as a teenager or entering your first professional contract. The big bucks will flow later.

      • Szetela had an injury early in his career I thought… Nothing huge, but it derailed him. That and losing his father, I’ve always thought contributed to his attitude problems.

        But man did he have talent… I wonder what it’s like to know you have the talent to be a multi-millionaire only to see it all pissed away into smoke…

      • I’d say Twellman reached his level for sure. He got the most out of his tools. It’s not at all unusual for speed guys like Convey and Rogers to become overly reliant on their speed as a youngster and stagnate technically.

    • Great points. A couple things:

      Zizzo himself still thinks that he made the right call to go overseas given the circumstances at the time. It’s a great thing that our best kids these days have a wider range of options these days that allow them to “slow their roll” somewhat early in their careers. Making it in Europe is hard. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the guys that have broken through (Dempsey, Baby Bradley) all share the same punch-you-in-the-mouth attitude on top of their natural ability.

      Since we’re on the subject, man, what a tournament that was! I really thought we were watching the moment that we finally broke through that glass ceiling in terms of catching up to the world’s elite in terms of raw talent. As fischy said, Zizzo was the truth that summer, but so was half the team. Yet only a couple of guys ended up cracking the senior team. What happened? Bad luck? Or was there actually some sort of systematic failure going on? I expected us to be rolling out 10 Landons by now. I guess I needed to slow my roll myself…

      • Let’s see. Adu is… Adu. We all know what happened there. Jozy is Jozy – doing quite well. Robbie became overly reliant on speed. Guys like Johann Smith, Arguez, and Anibaba were certainly nice prospects but I don’t remember anyone thinking they were truly special I feel like the big names were Jozy, Adu, Rogers, Zizzo, and Szetela, though Jozy was probably not a huge name at the time. I think Szetela is the only big name that really crashed and burned, though we certainly expected more from Freddy, Robbie and Sal.

      • Szetela, I thought, was going to be ace. But injuries and a bad attitude has seen him drop out of the sport entirely. Wasn’t he arrested at one point too with his older brother for fighting? I have a hazy memory…

        I was excited when he came to DC, but we had no time then to deal with his angst.

      • All true. I think I meant it in a more rhetorical way. We all followed these guys and saw how their careers unfolded. Also, let’s not forget that Bradley was on that team, so the team did produce one legitimate big-time guy. I was really just recounting that feeling of watching our boys play at the time, thinking that we were doing more than just hanging with the rest of the world’s best young prospects, not just attempting but landing haymakers. The first time I thought I was seeing world-class talent combine with the stereotypical lion-heart american spirit that we refer to so much in describing our national team. I think Zizzo really exemplifies that feeling of loss for me (I’m being a bit dramatic). It was like he appeared out of thin air, did a step-over, absolutely blazed past a defender on the right flank, then fell right off the face of the earth.

        Anyway, good on Sal for getting his career back on track. Happy to have a chance to see him do his thing on a weekly basis.

      • I remember it well. Jozy was actually pretty hyped by then since he had broken through in MLS and had scored in the playoffs in 2006 at age 16. Bradley had already started to get some serious PT with the senior team in the Gold Cup earlier that summer, so expectations were high for him also. Szetela was already starting to be viewed as a disappointment, so his U-20 world cup was a pleasant surprise. Zizzo was seen as a talented winger like Rogers, but not nearly as hyped as Adu, Jozy, and Bradley at the time.

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