From Olympic-team starter to Serie B bench-warmer in less than 12 months, Danny Szetela may be one of the few American players whose move to Europe actually set him back in the national-team pool.
When Major League Soccer sold the former Columbus Crew starlet's contract to Racing Santander of Spain's La Liga in August 2007, Szetela was an up-and-coming player in the U.S. midfield rotation and already was a veteran of U.S. youth teams with loads of international experience.
But his European adventure was a mixed bag. After leaving in the middle of his fourth MLS season, he would make only one appearance for Racing before being loaned to Brescia of Italy's second division in January of last year. He made only 26 appearances over two seasons with one goal and two assists for the Biancoazzurri, and suffered a groin injury last season which limited his playing time.
When his loan deal lapsed last month, Racing declined to re-sign him. Still only 22, Szetela decided the best thing for his career was to return home to MLS instead of pursue other options in Europe. It wasn't that he didn't have other options (he says there were offers), but he felt he needed to get back in his comfort zone. What happened? He wouldn't elaborate, but did intimate he had a handful of personal problems at Brescia that convinced him he needed to come home, and his propensity for homesickness has been well documented.
"Being in Europe alone wasn't going to help me," the New Jersey native said on Saturday after making his first appearance for as a sub for D.C. United against San Jose. "I felt the best way to get my confidence back up was to be back home near my family and friends, people I'm going to feel comfortable around."
Szetela is still a very talented player with good ball-winning skills and can be a physical box-to-box presence in central midfield or on the right. He'll clearly help D.C. settle that position. But to break back into Bob Bradley's national-team rotation will take a lot of work. Szetela hasn't received a single cap since being part of the U.S. Olympic team at last summer's Beijing Games.
Struggling to stay on the field in Europe didn't do him many favors; neither did the fact that the depth chart at his position -- from Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber on down to Stuart Holden to RobbieRogers -- is the most crowded on the national team. Will returning to MLS change that? Perhaps, but Szetela said he didn't consult the man in charge in making his decision.
"Bob would probably say Europe is the place to be," he said. "As long as I work hard, Bob will see that and hopefully bring me in."
He may have learned a lot during his time in Europe, and he may be a better player -- but Szetela's got a long road back to where he was two summers ago.
FIFA's recent relaxing of national-team eligibility rules has sent ripples all over the U.S. team. With German-born central midfielder Jermaine Jones declaring his intent to switch to the U.S., and a similar story with New Mexico-born left back Edgar Castillo having a change of heart after playing for Mexico, the U.S. pool could get some help in the coming months.
One such story that hasn't gotten as much attention, however, is that of ArturoAlvarez, who may make the switch the other way. The San Jose attacker, like Szetela, had a promising career as a U.S. youth-teamer, but has yet to see a call-up to the senior team.
Because of FIFA's new rules, however, the Houston-born Alvarez finally may see his wish to play for the El Salvador national team come true (he is the son of Salvadoran immigrants). If the paperwork is processed in time, the 24-year-old could be eligible for La Selecta before it plays its next qualifier at Trinidad and Tobago on Aug. 12, the same day the U.S. plays in Mexico City (though Alvarez's status is uncertain after tweaking his hamstring in practice last week).
Alvarez's story has created a big stir in the Salvadoran press, and the feeling is that he'd get his chance with El Salvador fairly immediately. Helping his cause is the fact that national-team captain Ramón Sánchez is now observing him firsthand as his newest teammate with the Earthquakes. San Jose signed the 27-year-old holding midfielder last week, and he's already impressed with Alvarez's abilities.
"He's a good player," said Sánchez. "He's very close to getting the chance. I think he could help us and I hope to see him in these qualifiers."
El Salvador has some decent attackers in Eliseo Quintanilla and Osael Romero, but La Selecta also has been shut out twice in the final Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying and is currently in fifth place in the six-team standings, just behind Mexico.
Alvarez could help the team reach its first World Cup since 1982 -- he has five goals and two assists for San Jose this season. Most compelling, however, is that if he does make the switch, he could appear in El Salvador's Sept. 5 qualifier against the U.S. at Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah. Alvarez has two goals and an assist in his last four games there in MLS play.