CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Monday, July 8, 2013
It's been quite a whirlwind for Danny Szetela over the past couple years, going from a promising young player for club and country to injury-driven obscurity.
It was a decade ago that he showed up on the radar as one of the youngest players in the U-17 World Cup, it seemed as though he was on the fast track to success.
Unfortunately for the New Jersey native, things just didn't click into place the way they could have. Injuries began to plague his young career, and followed him into his 20s until finally it appeared his career may be over after being released by DC United in 2010.
"It was a meniscus tear that couldn't be repaired. It never healed right so it kept tearing, I had to get a second surgery. On the second one they couldn't do anything with it either, so I had to get a meniscus transplant which was the third surgery."
The meniscus problem started early in 2010 while with DC, and derailed the possibility of getting back on the field. After three long years though, Szetela is feeling good, and ready to re-start his professional career.
"Feels great, you know. I keep doing rehab, working hard. I'm in the weight room a lot, been training for the past few months, almost every day with the Cosmos. I'm feeling great right now."
Despite his young age and competitive spirit, the last injury and the setbacks that went with it almost proved to be too much for him, as he contemplated leaving the game altogether. He stayed positive though, recognizing that his lifelong passion for the sport could still work out.
"It was getting difficult at times, but this is what I did my whole life, play soccer. At times it was tough, and it was easier at times. I just tried to stay positive and do the little things I was able to do to keep progressing to where I am now."
Few players have effectively returned in any sport after three years without a top level game, but Szetela feels that his absence may have actually helped him, as he has had time to mature off the field and change his tactical mindset about how he should play. Now, it's just about getting as much pre-season play in with the Cosmos as possible before the season starts next month.
"I'm feeling good, you know. With training every day, I feel like I'm getting better every day. Being three years away from the game, I feel I'm a lot smarter position wise and just being smarter with the ball. So that's something, and it's going to come along, the touch and everything. The fitness, that's why we have pre-season, and everything is coming along with that also."
Part of the recovery process from his meniscus transplant was to get back on the field, and it started with Icon FC, an amateur team with a family connection. Szetela gained permission from Icon's coach, an old friend, to train with the team and it unfolded from there into an Open Cup run.
"That was my first step, I know the coach very well, he's a family friend since I was a young boy. I just asked if I could train with them and slowly I was training with them, starting off as a neutral and progressing from training with them and start playing some games with them. You just get the mindset where you totally forget you had those knee surgeries and other injuries that occurred."
Being a New Jersey native, the legend of the Cosmos name has always been in Szetela's life. His father was a supporter, and his family lived less than 10 minutes from Giants Stadium where the original team played. Despite not being old enough to have seen any of their games himself, he grew up with video tapes and the mythos surrounding America's first superstar soccer team.
"They [family] lived less than 10 minutes from the stadium, my father used to go to games. I was just able to watch some videos of them, but I mean, they had some of the greatest players in the world. I know (Andranik) Eskandarian, Alecko's father who played, and Kazbek Tambi- Kazbek Tambi I knew who used to be a coach of mine and his brothers coached me when I was younger. I've met some of the guys, you know. Beckenbauer and Birkenmeier, and you know, these guys I've met before. It's just a pleasure to deal with these guys and knowing the history of the Cosmos and now with them coming back and me coming back, it seems like the greatest opportunity for myself and the perfect place for me to end up."
A lot of the talk surrounding the Cosmos, which has been surrounding them since they began their push to become a top tier team again a few years ago, has been whether or not a new incarnation would be able to live up to the legacy that their predecessors set. There are mixed feelings, but Szetela is optimistic, feeling that the new team embraces its heritage and will fill the shoes once worn by Pele, Carlos Alberto, Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia.
"I think it's something that you have to, or this isn't the place for you. The Cosmos, they were selling out Giants Stadium, 60- 70,000 people were coming to games. Everyone knew about the Cosmos in Europe and all over the world. So I think this is the time, slowly, this organization is going to be back to what they were."
The question of which league the Cosmos should play in has been on the minds of fans and commentators since the brand was reborn, with some expecting them to be named the second NYC team in MLS, and others saying they should receive no special treatment because of their name. As it unfolded, the Cosmos joined NASL, perhaps as fitting as anything, and the second NYC team went to NYCFC, the potentially great, potentially calamitous joint effort from Manchester City and the New York Yankees to operate a team in the boroughs.
Szetela sees NASL as a blessing, a league with fewer restrictions allowing it to grow, and with an increase in the quality of play being seen on a regular basis in the Open Cup.
"I think the NASL can, if you see what's happening in the Open Cup, NASL teams have been competing with the MLS. Unfortunately, there's not so many NASL teams, but I think one thing that this league can grow, is that there's no salary cap. Players will want to come, like in the past, the players that came to the Cosmos. I think that's one important thing for NASL, there's no salary cap. Players, they all want to get paid. In MLS there's a salary cap, and I think the league keeps progressing, you see NASL teams keep competing with MLS teams - as long as the competitiveness if there, the league will grow. I think sometime there will be a future where maybe there's just one league and you have the promotion, two teams go down and two teams come up. I think that's important in developing the level in the United States tremendously."
Szetela believes that the future of American soccer lies in an alliance between its leagues, rather than competing against each other, and he believes that a format where teams and players can come and go depending on their performances is important for soccer in America.
"I think that's important for soccer in general in America to go; there's a league that USL teams can go from USL to NASL, and you know, I think Cosmos with their name is a team that belongs in MLS."
One of the hallmarks of Szetela's career was being part of the U-20 World Cup team that made the Quarterfinals in Canada in 2007. On a roster with Michael Bradley, Freddy Adu, and Jozy Altidore, memorable wins came over Pato, Adriano, and Marcelo's Brazil, and Suarez and Cavani's Uruguay before losing out in the quarters in extra time to Austria. Szetela was a fixture on that team, scoring three goals. The U-20 teams since then have not measured up to the success, most recently bowing out in the group stages with one point in Turkey. Szetela believes it's a generational cycle running its course, highlighting greater problems surrounding youth development in the U.S.
"I think it's just- honestly, I don't know. I think it's the talent, sometimes the talent's there. It's more of a generation thing. I think it's important for teams in America, professional teams, to have those youth teams, not only the residency program, it's important for teams to have youth development that's the same as Europe. When I was in Europe, you'd see these young kids playing every day. School and then training. I think that's very important for everyone in the United States to see that, that's the thing that's missing in our country."