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Jan 11, 2009

Szetela enjoying life at Brescia

For someone who's barely the drinking age, Danny Szetela is considerably well-traveled.

He endured a three-year stint with Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew and played in the U-17 World Cup in Finland; the U-20 World Cup in Canada; and last summer's Olympics in Beijing, where he was enthusiastically cheered by many in the Szetela clan. His club career in Europe has seen the competitive midfielder move on loan from the coastal city of Santander in northern Spain, near the French border, to Brescia in northern Italy, a stone's throw from the chic -- and storied soccer history -- of Milan.

The sojourns don't make it easier to leave home, though.

The sadness in Szetela's voice is tangible when the 21-year-old discusses his latest trip, from his native New Jersey to Italy to rejoin surging Brescia of Serie B, after a brief pit stop over Christmas. Szetela has gotten even closer to his mom, Krystyna, and his three brothers and one sister since his dad, Julian, died during a seemingly routine medical procedure for a kidney ailment when Danny was a teenager. His parents, Polish immigrants, had another daughter who was killed in a car accident before Szetela was born.

"It's very hard being away from home, and since I was 14,'' Szetela said. "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.''

In this day and age, when technology rules, at least Szetela has ways of overcoming the homesickness. Armed with a device that allows him to catch the major television channels in the U.S., he gets his fair share of hit shows and ESPN highlights.

Szetela also benefited from a roommate during the first half of the season, having brought over a Polish-speaking Bulgarian friend he's known since he was 6 to help him settle and generally "make things easier." He might be staying a little longer. In addition to phoning home, Szetela makes frequent calls to Poland, too, where he has ample family.

"Hopefully we have a good run and keep winning,'' Szetela said. "It'll make the time go faster.''

That's not to say living in Italy is torture. Far from it, especially since, Szetela admits, soccer is his life and a means of paying homage to his father. Mind you, Szetela's beloved pierogi are nowhere to be found. (He probably wouldn't be allowed to eat many anyway, given the notoriously strict dietary regimes imposed by Italian clubs. At least he enjoys pasta.)

On loan at Brescia from Racing Santander until the end of the season -- Szetela says the wheels are still in motion to make the switch permanent -- he's one of the few younger Americans in Europe actually getting a game, unlike, for instance, midfielder Maurice Edu, at Rangers, and striker Freddy Adu, on loan at Monaco.

And Brescia, while never considered a powerhouse, is certainly no minnow. The likes of the ponytailed one, former world player of the year Roberto Baggio; prolific Italian international striker Luca Toni; Romanian magician Gheorghe Hagi; and current Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola have all suited up for the Rondinelle (or Little Swallows, referring to the diminutive bird). The team is one of the most feared in the second tier.

Szetela was a regular under the excitable coach Serse Cosmi in August and September, though Cosmi was sacked following a start that left Brescia with a solitary win from five league games, not good enough for a side expected, at worst, to land in the playoffs for a second consecutive campaign. In came veteran Nedo Sonetti, who's coached almost two dozen clubs and has somewhat of a reputation in Italy for taking over midseason at teams either in relegation trouble or underachieving in the middle of the standings.

A new manager is accompanied by new ideas, and Szetela didn't see many starts for a while. A minor groin injury didn't help. He did, however, start in Brescia's last game before the Christmas break, a 1-0 win over fellow promotion chasers Grosseto. Brescia is currently in a four-way tie on points with 32, sitting sixth on goal difference.

Former Polish international and Everton winger Robert Warzycha, who bonded with Szetela when he played for Columbus, backed him to do whatever it takes to become a mainstay in the lineup. Szetela lived with Warzycha and his family for a year in the infancy of his Major League Soccer career.

"I liked his work rate and dedication,'' said Warzycha, who was promoted from Crew assistant to head coach in December. "He's a box-to-box player, not afraid on a 50-50 ball, and has good endurance. When you put him on the field, you know what you're going to get.''

Szetela admits he sometimes wonders how the evolution of his career might have changed had he sauntered to Europe earlier, no matter how difficult that would have been. He says he regrets not signing with Everton or joining Brescia earlier -- he was linked with a throng of teams before inking with Racing -- and casts an envious eye on Cesc Fabregas and John Obi Mikel, foes during his youth days and currently established with giants Arsenal and Chelsea, respectively.

Then again, he knows the promised land in Italy, Serie A, is not far away.

"We were very close last year,'' Szetela said. "This year we feel a lot more confident, and with the new coach and some players around us who are more experienced, I think definitely there's a very good possibility for us to go through.''

Bet Szetela wouldn't mind the journey to the San Siro.

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.

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