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After having his professional soccer career derailed for nearly four years, the former U.S. youth international has made a successful comeback in the NASL.

As the hordes of New York Cosmos fans in green and black swarmed the field at Silverbacks Park in Atlanta last month following the NASL Soccer Bowl final, Danny Szetela wore an easy smile as bright as the gold medal around his neck. It was easy to see the happiness in his face, and it was equally easy to see the emotion fill him as he thought of the rocky road he took from the brink of soccer anonymity to his first professional championship.

Just six years ago, Danny Szetela was riding high, with his career on the verge of taking off. As one of the stars of the U.S. national team at the Under-20 World Cup, Szetela scored three goals in the group stage to help lead the Americans to an undefeated record in a group that included Brazil. A month later, Szetela inked a deal with top-flight Spanish side Racing Santander. Two months later he was making his U.S. national team debut, and a year after that he was representing the United States at the Olympics.

As quickly as Szetela’s career took off, his star faded from view just as fast. His stint at Racing Santander produced no appearances, and while a yearlong loan with Italian Serie B side Brescia yielded the chance to play regularly, Szetela still made his way back to Major League Soccer.

Instead of restart his career, a stint with D.C. United derailed it, with a major knee injury turning into a lengthy ordeal that kept him out of professional soccer for four years.

“It’s hard to explain how bad that whole thing was because for a while I didn’t know if I would ever play again,” Szetela told Goal USA. “You realize what the game means to you when it’s gone, and you can’t play, and you don’t know if you’re ever going to play again.

“I’m not saying I ever gave up but it got pretty tough sometimes to believe things would change.”

That injury developed into a degenerative knee issue that would require a three different surgeries, including a procedure not common among soccer players. Szetela underwent ligament replacement surgery, but he had to wait for a donor ligament to complete the process.

Even after the surgery, there were no assurances that Szetela would ever come close to playing professionally again, but the real rock bottom in Szetela’s time away from the game was still yet to come.

It had been almost three years since Szetela had made any headlines of any sort, but in February 2011 he made them for the wrong reasons when he was arrested along with his two brothers for their roles in a bar fight. Remembering that night sparked an emotional response from Szetela, who was eager to tell his side of an incident he feels earned him the unfair label of troublemaker.

“People talked about that without knowing what really happened. My brother got jumped outside of a bar by six guys and I tried to break it up and we got arrested,” Szetela said. “Was I supposed to let my brother get beat up? We didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t feel bad about any of that because who isn’t going to stick up for family?”

The disorderly conduct charges against Szetela were eventually dropped, but the damage to Szetela’s reputation and his chances of a comeback were already done. The incident was seen as the actions of a former young star who had lost his way.

Professional soccer probably seemed like the furthest thing from Szetela’s mind. His main desire was to no longer have pain in his knee, and from there potentially step on a soccer field again. His ligament replacement surgery proved to be a success, allowing him to slowly work his way back into playing soccer on a casual basis. He played indoor games and strengthened his knee enough to eventually start playing for the semipro team Icon FC, a New Jersey-based club that competed in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup.

It was after that run in the Open Cup that Szetela earned a chance to try out for the New York Cosmos, who signed the 26-year-old before the NASL fall campaign. Expectations weren’t that high for a player who hadn’t played a professional match in four years, but Szetela took full advantage of the opportunity the Cosmos gave him and quickly became a key midfield option for coach Giovanni Savarese’s side.

Szetela quickly established himself as a regular starter in central midfield alongside Spanish star Marcos Senna, showing the qualities that once had his career skyrocketing before he was even 21.

“He’s been a real pro since he’s been here and it’s a credit to him that he’s come in and made the most of this opportunity,” said Cosmos captain Carlos Mendes. “Going through the things he’s gone through forces you to grow up and he’s someone who obviously had a lot of success when he was much younger, but now you see that he’s mature and serious about his career.”

Szetela’s play in midfield helped the Cosmos win the NASL fall championship, and he was in the starting lineup when the Cosmos beat the Atlanta Silverbacks in the Soccer Bowl final Nov. 9.

The victory, and the winner’s medal around Szetela’s neck, felt like the completion of a journey that, at times, seemed destined for an unhappy ending. But on that night in Atlanta, Szetela’s nearly four-year ordeal turned from cautionary tale to story of redemption.

“It just shows what can happen when you believe in somebody and you give them a chance,” Savarese said of Szetela. “He’s a young man with a great heart, and he’s a good player, and this is just another step for him. He has much more soccer to play.”

Ask Szetela about what lies ahead and he steers the conversation back to the present, and what he’s been through. His play for the Cosmos has attracted the attention of suitors, with MLS teams and European teams taking note. Despite that interest, Szetela seems more likely to stay with the Cosmos, and is in talks with the club over a new long-term contract. 

After all he has endured, all Szetela wants to do is live in the moment, and enjoy the pro career the Cosmos helped him rescue from near oblivion.

“I owe the Cosmos everything because they took a chance on me,” Szetela said. “I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career, but this year with the Cosmos is probably the most fun I’ve ever had, just being able to play again and be part of a team. I missed all of this.”

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