“He’s a fighter”: The Danny Szetela story, Part One

Danny Szetela [Photo: Steven Hamlin/TICC]

Danny Szetela [Photo: Steven Hamlin/TICC]

The Hype.

It’s a term given to the coverage and expectations perpetually lumped upon young talented sports stars, many times before the beginning of their professional careers. “The Hype” claims that a 17 year old will be better than Michael Jordan. “The Hype” tightens the vice grip of public opinion and scrutiny. “The Hype” manifests within a player in the form of confidence that only seasoned veterans enjoy. And, more often than not, “The Hype” claims careers over long before they actually are.

Danny Szetela was once anointed with “The Hype”, and nearly part of the many scalps it has claimed over the years.

Daniel Gregory Szetela burst into U.S. Soccer’s collective conscious during the 2003 U-17 World Cup held in Finland, a tournament that saw the likes of Cesc Fabregas and David Silva begin their lengthy international careers. Szetela started all four games for the United States in the tournament, which was certainly a feat considering he was the youngest player on his squad. The United States squad that year also featured NASL players Freddy Adu, whose 4 goals was good for fifth-best in the tournament, and Jamie Watson, who added a goal and two assists.

This is where Danny Szetela was thrust into the spotlight. The young Polish-American received offers from the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, and Everton to play abroad as he graduated USSF’s Bradenton Academy. One of America’s brightest young soccer stars sat and pondered the options he had in front of him for his future.

That’s when tragedy struck.

Before entering professional soccer, Danny’s father, Julian, passed away from what was supposed to be a simple procedure to help a kidney problem. A tremendous part of his life and the man who brought him to MetroStars matches for years, this moment affected the young midfielder tremendously. Szetela has always described himself as “family first”, and this moment was no different.

“It was a difficult time in my life, my father passing away. He was always there with soccer, and everything else that I needed. Off the field it was tough. At that age, I was 14, 15 years old, and it was difficult to face. I was still trying to take it all in and let reality hit. On the field, it was sometimes motivation, you know? I knew he was watching. I was trying to make him proud, he gave me that extra motivation. At the end of the day, decisions are decisions. I probably would have went to Europe if my father didn’t pass away.”

“The right decision was for me to stay with my family and get through the situation.”

Szetela signed on with Major League Soccer. Missing out on the 2004 SuperDraft, Szetela was then put up to the infamous MLS Draft Lottery, to be broadcast live on ESPN2. It was previously reported that he would only sign with the league if he was placed with his hometown MetroStars, and it was obvious why. Danny grew up a mere five minutes from Giants Stadium. As a kid, he and his father would always attend MetroStars games. Danny saw his move to MLS (and a move to MetroStars) as paying homage to his deceased father, the man who brought him into the sport he loved so dearly. This desire to play for his Dad would become a career long motivation, one he keeps to this day.

However, his future was purely up to chance.

The MetroStars (with a 16.6% chance of winning the lottery) lost out on Szetela to the Columbus Crew. Both Danny and MLS Commissioner Don Garber acknowledged at the draft that Columbus might be willing to trade with the MetroStars or other clubs, but no such move ever came together. With a move that could have meant so much for him, what was going through the midfielder’s mind?

“At the time, there was a bit of regret. The few players that were coming out at my age all ended up drafting to the teams where they were from. For me, I was hoping to get drafted (or the lottery or whatever), to the MetroStars, but that didn’t happen. I was a little disappointed at the time, I think the picture they took after the lottery draft showed it. At the end of the day, I chose to be a professional and had to go to Columbus and work hard to get better and move on with my career. I think Columbus at the time was asking for Eddie Gavin and one of the MetroStars other designated players for me.”

Danny Szetela joins the Columbus Crew [Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images]

Danny Szetela joins the Columbus Crew [Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images]

The photo tells it all. There Szetela stands, long hair brushed back, with his eyes looking beyond any camera or person in the room. His face is void of emotion, looking more like he was getting his food at Denny’s rather than starting his professional career. Next to him stands the Commissioner that brought him here, nervous smile across his face, knowledge of the awkward situation in his eyes. This was not what was meant to be, but it is what happened. Danny Szetela was heading to Columbus.

Szetela’s stay in Columbus, unfortunately for him, came during what many regard as a transition period for the club. Despite Brian McBride leaving the club prior to the 2004 season, the Crew enjoyed a run to the Eastern Conference semifinals. The next two years, however, would not be as pretty. Greg Andrulis was replaced halfway through the 2005 season by assistant Robert Warzycha, who shared Szetela’s Polish heritage. In fact, due to Szetela’s age, he was taken into Warzycha’s home and lived in his basement for a decent amount of his time in Colombus prior to turning to 18. If you ask Danny about that part of his time in Columbus, he remembers it fondly.

“I lived with Robert Warzycha, the head coach at the time. I was too young to live on my own. I lived with him, Polish background, played for the Polish national team and in Europe. He was like a second father to me, his wife Aliza was a second mother. The kids, Abartos, Conrad, it was all good.”

With that shared heritage and fan pressure to give the young phenom a shot, Szetela earned a good amount of playing time but did not impress much. The next season, Columbus hired Sigi Schmidt, which essentially marked the end of Szetela’s time in Colombus. Long story short, the young, rambunctious midfielder and the seasoned, strict head coach did not see eye to eye. Szetela finished the 2006 season featuring in only four games due to injury, and and 34 appearances in total for the black and yellow. He looked forward to the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada not only to get back in form, but to possibly play himself into better options at the club level.

danny-szetela-usmnt-biography

[Photo: USSoccerPlayers.com]

The U-20 World Cup was undoubtedly Danny Szetela’s piece de resistance at the national team level. Szetela was part of a squad that featured fellow wonder kid Adu as well as future national team stalwarts Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. Coached by Thomas Rongen (of recent Rowdies and Strikers fame), the squad made it all the way to the quarterfinals, falling 2-1 to Austria. The tournament featured a memorable 6-1 win over Poland, driven by an Adu hat-trick and a famous Szetela brace, which followed opposing national team coach Pawel Janas’ infamous comment, “we have 200 players like Szetela.” Did this quote give Danny extra motivation? Maybe not, but he certainly liked proving something.

“It didn’t affect me too much, I just took it as some motivation. Scored a goal in that first game against South Korea before we played Poland. Going into that game I just had to stay focused, couldn’t let things from the outside come in or anything bother you. We had a good run in that U20 World Cup. Playing against Poland, I have Polish blood in my veins. I wanted to win, I didn’t really celebrate…Maybe a little bit, I kissed the crest. Two goals against Poland felt good, to show everyone there’s not 200 Szetela’s out there at the time. The opportunity to play against Poland was awesome, I played against them at the U17s, but not at a tournament that mattered.”

In addition, the U.S. team triumphed 2-1 over a Uruguyan team that featured future world superstars Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Much like the U-17 cycle in 2004, Szetela’s performance garnered him attention from abroad. This time, however, he would pull the trigger on a move overseas.

Interestingly enough, this point in Szetela’s career did link him to a member of the club where his heart lies today. During the halftime show of a Red Bull – Rapids match, broadcaster (and agent / partner in sports management agency Global Sport Group) Shep Messing had a few choices words for a player that was believed to be a client of his at the time.

“I don’t really think that is a surprise. He’s a great young man. Remember Everton was chasing him, trying to sign him when he was 16 years old. Danny Szetela made the decision to sign with Major League Soccer. He’s had an erratic career in Columbus, never really became a full-time starting player, never blossomed. This is his time. He’s 20 years old, remember he’s got that Polish passport, that gives him an EU passport, and teams all over Europe — in Italy, England, Scotland — they’re looking to sign this youngster.”

When later pressed by Washington Post’s Steven Goff on the professionalism of those comments, Messing walked them back, admitting on the relationship to Szetela he “should have disclosed that to the viewers as a preface to my comments.” Messing went on to discuss how it was not him, but his brother Ron that was Szetela’s agent at the time. Shep dealt exclusively with non-MLS players, and furthermore, Szetela was Global Sport Group’s only client. Goff researched the latter comment only to find Red Bull defender Carlos Mendes on the group’s online client list.

Szetela also reflected about his long-awaited move to Europe.

“Going to Spain was good. After the U-20 World Cup, there were some other offers out there from Lazio and Roma and some other clubs. Some things that happened with agents and stuff messed those deals up. I always wanted to go back to Europe, I always wanted to go. I had the opportunity with Racing jumping in and bought me from MLS.”

Shep or no Shep, Szetela signed for Racing de Santader (then of Spain’s Primera Division) on August 31, 2007. He made his debut on November 14th of that same year against Malaga FC, a match that ended in a 0-0 draw. Always the pragmatist and optimist, Szetela reflected positively on his time in Spain, despite lack of actual playing time.

“Being in Spain was great, I was still 19 going on 20 years old, playing with players that had played for Real Madrid, Atletico, Barcelona. At that time, Racing de Santander was having their best season in the history of the club. The fans were great, the city and atmosphere during that time were amazing. It was a great experience, but unfortunately it was tough to get playing time. I played some Copa del Rey, bit on the bench, couple times in the league. The experience was amazing, being able to go to the Camp Nou and sit on the bench and watch Barcelona right in front of your eyes in the best seats in the house. I wish I could have got on the pitch but, unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

Szetela was then loaned out to Brescia in Italy’s Serie B in the following year, where he went on to make 26 appearances and score a goal in roughly a season’s time.

This is where, seemingly, the idea of family tugged Danny’s heart closer and closer to home. In a piece titled “Szetela enjoying life at Brescia” that featured on ESPN FC in early 2009, Ravi Ubha wrote that the sadness in the midfielder’s voice was “tangible”, and went on to describe how much Szetela’s family meant to him. Danny had his own comments.

“It’s very hard being away from home, and since I was 14. For me, it’s family first, before anything else. Whenever I’m away and there are problems at home, I wish I could be there, but I can’t. It makes it more difficult.”

Szetela later added that winning games at Brescia (at the time pushing for a spot in the promotion playoffs into Serie A) would “make time go faster.”

Following the end of his loan on July 13th, 2009, Szetela returned to Spain and Racing de Santader. However, Racing decided against extending his contract, putting Szetela once again in limbo. This time, he returned home, signing a contract with MLS and was entered into the MLS allocation process. After F.C. Dallas passed on him with the first allocation spot, Szetela was allocated to D.C. United on July 19th, 2009. He joined a defensive midfield crew that found only an unhealthy Ben Olsen and faltering Andrew Jacobson as partners for Clyde Simms. Certainly, this was a prime opportunity for the 22 year old to reach his full potential at club level.

Part Two of our conversation with Danny Szetela releases tomorrow, with the midfielder discussing his return to the US, his infamous injury, his time in green and white, and more.

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