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Sep 23, 2007

Szetela overcomes adversity to make his mark

Pierogi.

It's a food synonymous with Polish culture. To those who have known Danny Szetela the longest, however, it is most fondly associated with him.

"He's always a little kid to me," said Chris Karcz, who grew up with the Szetela family in Clifton, N.J., and is now a member of the New York Red Bulls. "When he was young, I remember him as being a little chubby ... they used to call him 'Pierogi.' I used to play in the park with him -- it is great to see him successful now."

Now.

It is a word that means a lot to Szetela; a young man who has learned to embrace the present. Having recently shed seven pounds to be ready for the U-20 World Cup in Canada, Szetela is a far cry from the softer player who entered MLS in 2004. Now a man, he speaks with a maturity and savvy that is rare. His words, calm and composed, underscore a quiet determination and demeanor. Voice never wavering, his life seemingly has been shaped by occurrences outside his control.

The newly signed midfielder for La Liga outfit Racing de Santander, Szetela has been a man for a number of years. At the age of 15, when most teenage boys are learning to shave and are worried about making varsity, Szetela was grieving the loss of his father. At age four, his sister died in a horrific car accident. It is his appreciation for life, born from grief and heartache, that has shaped Szetela into one of the top young players in this country. Adversity, is not a word in his vocabulary.

"[You] can't take life for granted," Szetela said. "You got to stay positive in life. My family is important to me -- the most important thing to me. My mother has health issues; my sister is just starting school. You can't let things keep you down."

"This is a kid who grew up in difficult circumstances," said Shep Messing, who served as Szetela's agent for the past two years. "He said from day one that he wants to be the best, he wants to support his family."

2007 has been a year of being the best for Szetela. Finally injury free, the central midfielder earned a place in the Columbus midfield as the Crew climbed into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. After years of doubts and concerns, Szetela, in his own quiet way, began to silence critics.

Now.

It was his play in this summer's U-20 World Cup in Canada, however, that earned him the headlines. Displaying rock-solid positioning, his two goals against Poland garnered international buzz as the U.S. team advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament. Never known as an offensive weapon, he was quickly tabbed as one of the impact players of the tournament for the successful American team.

"I mean I've played against Poland before, when I was younger," said Szetela about his brace in the second game of the tournament. "But never at this level."

He continued on about the experience -- about playing against the country that his parents emigrated from. "On my jersey, I have the U.S. crest, I play for this team. It is an honor. It was such a good experience overall, really felt great. A lot of people didn't think we'd do as well as we did, but we played well. We felt we had the confidence we could do well."

He is the prototype of the new American player. Strong and athletic, he has a vision and confidence on the ball that shows an increasing savvy and tactical awareness.

"The development in the United States is getting better," Szetela said about the success of the youth national team this past summer. "Residency is key, but a lot of young players are playing professionally and we're getting games. The confidence comes from them, performing in games in MLS or in Europe. You have to play games to get that, and now we have that."

"He's never been known for his technical ability or goal-scoring prowess, but he scored three goals for us," said Thomas Rongen, who coached Szetela in the U-20 World Cup. "Clearly, he has added a dimension to his game. Foreign teams are certainly looking for him."

Now.

Since signing with MLS, Szetela never denied that Europe was his ultimate soccer destination.

This past summer, intriguing rumors emerged about Szetela making a move across the Atlantic. Teams reported to have been after the midfielder included Middlesbrough, Everton, Lazio and Roma -- all established clubs in impressive leagues. Now, he will be the only American in La Liga.

"Even though my development isn't at the highest level yet, my goal has always been to get to Europe to play over there and push myself." Szetela said.

As he heads overseas, Szetela's game is still a work in progress.

"I think Danny can technically be better," Rongen said about. "Make better decisions, faster decisions. The key for any good holding midfielder is to hold possession over time."

Then.

Many remember when Szetela joined the league in 2004 -- the incident is now almost infamous. Because of his high-profile status with the U-17's, Szetela was entered into a lottery to determine which team he'd be allocated to, with Columbus winning his rights. In an event that ran on ESPNNEWS, a glum Szetela held up a yellow Crew jersey. The face said it all; he was far from happy.

"New York was always my first choice, that's where my family was," he said. "My decision to go pro though meant I had to deal with where I ended up."

"At 16 years old, he was always bigger stronger and faster then all the other kids," Messing said. "Then there was a time when kids caught up to him. And this is where I give [Columbus coach] Sigi Schmid a lot of credit. Sigi, more than anybody, really helped to develop Danny where we see him today. Now, with those better skills, we see where he is now."

Resiliency is now becoming an adjective synonymous with Szetela, who has battled back against pressures and situations out of his control throughout much of his formative years. Now a man on the cusp of testing himself in one of the best leagues in the world, it is Szetela's time to shine. Not too bad for a kid they used to call "Pierogi."

But they don't call him that today. Not now.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is the soccer editor for New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.