US Open Cup: Former MLS starlet Danny Szetela using amateur club's run to resurrect career
He arrived at the hotel, took a quick dip in the pool and was ready to relax.
This was Monday night outside Richmond, Va., at the end of what had been a long day for former MLS and US Under-20 national team prodigy Danny Szetela (above, No. 7) and some of his teammates on Icon FC, the Montville, N.J.-based amateur club that will play the Richmond Kickers on Tuesday in the second round of the US Open Cup (7 pm ET, watch LIVE stream).
"We were trying to get a bus, but on late notice we couldn't get one in time," Szetela told MLSsoccer.com. "So the coaches drove us in SUVs. We all went straight to the pool to stretch. It wasn't the whole team. Some guys were driving themselves down after they got off work."
LIVE USOC COVERAGE: Follow Szetela & Icon FC as they try to advance past Richmond
The trip down I-95 took some seven hours, but that's really nothing compared to the road Szetela's been traveling for the last two-and-a-half years. The kid who was famously awarded by lottery (live on ESPN2) to the Columbus Crew back in 2004 has just returned to the field, though his Wikipedia page still refers to him as a "former soccer player."
Where has he been?
"I had three knee surgeries," Szetela said. "On February 3, 2010, that was my first. I was with D.C. United at the time. It wasn't successful and I was soon released. The doctors went in a second time in Jersey in 2011, to see if they could do anything, and they couldn't. And the third surgery, I just had, was a meniscus transplant, and I had to wait nine months to get the meniscus from a donor, actually a cadaver.
"Finally, I was able to rehab and, right now, I'm feeling great. I'm hoping the road is clear now and I can get back to playing professionally."
Szetela, one of the stalwarts for Thomas Rongen's team at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup (that's him above celebrating a goal with teammates Dax McCarty, Michael Bradley and Robbie Rogers), said he's done nothing but try to get himself back on the field during his time away from the game. It started with keeping himself on a healthy diet when he couldn't run or kick a ball. And then recently, his rehab evolved into running, lifting and playing.
"The desire is there, maybe more than ever," said Szetela. "I think I've become a smarter player because during my time off I was able to watch so many games and study the game. I have some pain, but it's nothing that's keeping me from being able to play."
Icon FC, a team made up mostly of New Jersey-based college players and a few former USL professionals, welcomed Szetela into the mix a few months ago. They qualified for their first-ever Open Cup in early April, and advanced to Tuesday's game with Richmond with a 4-1 victory over the Brooklyn Italians last week.
"It's been great for me," Szetela said. "I started getting some training during the winter, and some games in March and April, and now we have a chance to make some history."
Szetela said part of his job tonight, in addition to playing in a holding midfielder role, will be to calm the nerves of his teammates, using the experience he gained in MLS, a stint in Italy with Brescia and in youth international competitions.
From an individual perspective, there's more to it than that.
"I'd like to re-sign in MLS or maybe go back to Europe," Szetela said. "Poland is always an option. It's where I was born and I still know many people over there. But my goal is MLS. I'm going to start training with the [New York] Cosmos when I get home, to get things more consistent. Because with Icon, it's tough to get guys off work to train consistently."
If there's any message he can send before the ball is touched Tuesday night, it's simply that he's never stopped wanting to play. He never retired and never considered retiring.
"It was depressing," Szetela admitted. "I wanted to play but I couldn't. I wasn't able to run, kick a ball or anything. It seems like a long time ago, things like playing for the Crew and in the U-20 World Cup in Canada, but sometimes it feels like it just happened. It's my goal to get back, I work hard every day. I hope people are noticing.
A win for Icon would help his cause.
"If we win, we play D.C. United," Szetela said. "We can't look ahead, and I need to stay focused on what we're doing tonight, but I'd really look forward to playing D.C. I would."