Danny Szetela made a name for himself in United States soccer circles by virtue of a rapid ascent up the nation's development ladder.
First representing his country at the under-14 level, Szetela then entered the U.S. residency program in Bradenton, Fla. and eventually earned prominent roles on the U-17, U-20 and U-23 squads in major international tournaments, including a promising cameo at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing alongside the likes of Jozy Altidore, Stuart Holden and Sacha Kljestan. He signed with Major League Soccer at the tender age of 17 and logged more than 2,000 minutes with the Columbus Crew before moving on to Europe to hone his craft in Spain and Italy.
Yet his stateside return with D.C. United has been plagued by a series of fits and starts. When United claimed Szetela in the allocation draft last July, it looked like a welcome midseason boost for a D.C. midfield stretched by injury and schedule congestion. But head coach Tom Soehn used the 22-year-old sparingly, handing him just four starts in all competitions and obliquely criticizing his training habits amid rumors of discord between the two men as the team stumbled down the stretch.
This year, Szetela's prospects brightened considerably with the arrival of a new boss in the form of Curt Onalfo -- only for the New Jersey-born midfielder to tear the meniscus in his right knee on just the second full day of preseason training. Surgery soon followed, necessitating six weeks on the sidelines and further testing his generally jovial outlook on life.
"I really worked hard this offseason in order to be able to earn a starting spot with D.C. Everything was going well, and then this happened," Szetela said this week.
Szetela has taken solace in the fact that the injury has occurred early enough in the year not to dash his prospects of playing a part in United's season opener in Kansas City on March 27, however, and he's eager to be back in uniform for the Carolina Challenge Cup, the club's final preseason tuneup featuring three friendly matches from March 13-20.
"Everything is going like it's supposed to be. I'm riding the bike already so hopefully soon I'll be able to start running," he explained on Wednesday. "The trip to South Carolina, hopefully by then I'll be ready to be on the field and get some games in before the season starts."
Left to rehab his knee in D.C. while the rest of the team trains in Bradenton, Szetela remains focused on pushing his way into the first XI on a regular basis in 2010, and thus far Onalfo seems to rank him as a contender for an advanced central role alongside veteran holding midfielder Clyde Simms in a 4-4-2 formation. It's an inviting opportunity for a player capable of covering acres of ground and utilizing a wide range of skills, should he find his top form again.
"The center of the park is where I've played my whole career so if I get to play there, it's where I feel most comfortable," said Szetela. "With the national team I was an 18-to-18, box-to-box player. So if Clyde's more holding and I'm more going forward, that's fine with me. I think with D.C., what's good is that we don't really control [movement] - 'you have to stay there and just there.' We like to move around and guys always cover for each other."
He acknowledges underperforming after his midsummer move to D.C. -- "I just wasn't 100 percent there last year when I came back" -- but the entire club has reason to flush the memories of '09 and Szetela is keen to return his own career's path to its once-dynamic trajectory.
"With the coaching staff and the guys on the team, we definitely look like a different bunch of guys than we were last year," he said. "We weren't getting results but I think everyone put that aside this year. We have a lot of young talent and we signed some good new players. So as long as we stay positive like we have been so far, I think that the team can go to the MLS Cup."