The most important lesson that Danny Szetela has learned the past three years is not to take anything in life for granted.
The Paterson, N.J., native is grateful the Cosmos have given him another chance at a professional soccer career at age 26. Szetela, who turned pro when he was 16, has overcome not one, not two, but three operations on a fragile right knee since 2010.
"You don't realize how one moment of training or during the game, your career could be over," Szetela said earlier this week. "That's what almost something that happened to me. I stayed positive and kept working hard . . . Every day is a gift to be on the field to be able to kick that ball."
At one time, Szetela was on a fast track. He impressed at the 2003 Under-17 World Cup. At the 2007 U-20 World Cup, he scored twice in a win over Poland, his parents birthplace. He had so much potential that Major League Soccer held a weighted lottery draft for him in 2004. The Columbus Crew won his rights.
During his four-year Crew tenure, he played 34 games. He decided to test the waters in Europe with Racing Santander (Spain) from 2007-2009 and Brescia (Italy) from 2008-2009 before returning to MLS with D.C. United in 2010. That's when his knee problems began at 23, when many players come into their own.
His rebuilt knee includes a meniscus from a cadaver. Though he wanted to play "yesterday," Szetela took his time in his comeback.
"I was definitely cautious," he said. "After my third surgery, I really took my time with the rehab, the strengthening and the recovering to make sure I didn't come back too early."
Szetela said that he wanted to return to playing "more than anything in the world . . . It was tough at times with the injury with the surgeries."
His right knee hasn't been a problem. "It feels great," Szetela said. "I can't complain . . . There was a little bit of soreness. Compared to what it felt like, it was nothing, like a mosquito bite."
The 5-11, 170-pound Szetela has work habits that have not gone unnoticed by coach Giovanni Savarese. "He is doing everything right since he has been here, showing the coaching staff that he's hungry to have another opportunity," Savarese said.
"You've just got to love the game," Szeleta said. "My whole life was soccer. Growing up, I always had a soccer ball. Playing professionally was always something I always wanted to do. I'm 26-years-old, but that's still young. At times it was depressing."
He has high hopes for himself and the Cosmos when they host Fort Lauderdale in their season opener at Hofstra University Aug. 3. "It's to become a starter on this team and a leader," he said. "That's what I'm doing every day, training in the morning, gym in the afternoon. There's a lot of young guys on the team. If I could give them some advice to make them better, that's what I'm going to do. I signed a contract to win the league and make a statement that the Cosmos are coming back."
And make a comeback of his own as well.