MLS spices up the summer with signing of another youth star
Posted: Wednesday July 21, 2004 8:27PM; Updated: Wednesday July 21, 2004 10:38PM
Danny Szetela turned down an offer from English club Everton.
Exactly 1,000 ping-pong balls will be rattling in a drum in New York on Thursday, but only one will tell us which MLS team can stake a claim to 17-year-old Danny Szetela, the U.S. under-20 national team midfielder who's the latest top prospect to sign with the league (following Freddy Adu and Eddie Gaven).
Thursday's Lotto Madness is an important event for a number of reasons:
1) It spices up the summer with some rare in-season MLS trade talks as several teams (most notably Szetela's hometown MetroStars) pursue the Clifton, N.J., native, who made the all-tournament team at last year's FIFA Under-17 World Championship.
2) It gives MLS some needed buzz. (ESPNews will televise the event live at 3 p.m. ET.)
3) Most important, it gives one MLS team a player who could make an impact this season and beyond in the league.
Among the dozen coaches and GMs I spokeáwith this week, the general consensus is that the 6-foot, 172-pound Szetela (pronounced zuh-TEL-uh) could be an MLS starter sooner rather than later if he can handle a tricky midseason adjustment to the league.
"Danny is physically mature beyond his years, and that will put him in a good position to handle the rigors of MLS," says U.S. under-23 coach Glenn Myernick. "He's a wonderful all-around player who's capable of playing in the league this year. It's important that nobody puts too many demands on the kid, but he's got a bright future."
Dallas GM Greg Elliott, whose team has the best chance in the weighted lottery (26.2 percent), says half the teams in the league have contacted him about possible trades for Szetela if the Burn win his rights. "People are scrambling," Elliott says, "because the kid has such an upside."
A relentless player with vision and bite, Szetela is a prototype defensive mid, but he can also play on the right side (as he does with the U-20s) and as an attacking mid if necessary.
Odds of Landing Danny Szetela
"He's a terrific signing for the league," says Columbus coach Greg Andrulis, whose Crew has the second-best odds (21.1 percent). "You can see what a season and a half has done for Eddie Gaven [Metro's 17-year-old All-Star], and it could do the same for Danny."
Szetela says he wants to play for the MetroStars, which would allow him to live at home, play on the same team as friends Gaven and Michael Bradley and develop under the steady hand of coach Bob Bradley.
But the son of Polish immigrants is also ready to play with any team that wants him, which could also include Columbus (with Polish assistant Robert Warzycha), D.C United (whose coach, Peter Nowak, is close to Szetela's family) and Chicago (where Szetela, who speaks fluent Polish, would fire up the Polish community).
Still, a trade with the MetroStars is the most likely scenario.
"We're making an aggressive effort to get Danny, but nothing has panned out yet," Metro GM Nick Sakiewicz told me on Tuesday. "At the same time, we can't mortgage the store to get a young player who's very talented but to a certain extent unproven in the league."
Another reason for staying home, Szetela says, would be to help his mother, Krystyna. Szetela's father, Julian, died unexpectedly three years ago in a surgery mishap, and his mother is suffering from heart problems. (It's a family that has dealt with far too much pain: Szetela's older sister, Justine, was killed by a drunk driver in the 1980s.)
"We don't have much money, and my mom can't work," Szetela told me last year, "so I just want to make the most money I can to help out my family."
Yet while it would be easy to rap MLS for refusing to guarantee Szetela a spot with the MetroStars (as it effectively did for another minor, D.C.'s Adu, with his hometown team), the fact is that Szetela is at fault for the situation, having lost almost all of his negotiating leverage by misplaying his cards in England (despite having a Polish passport that would have removed the need for a UK work permit).
Szetela's best offer came last August from Everton, which put a guaranteed five-year, $700,000 offer on the table that would have allowed him to spend the first year finishing up at the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
Szetela didn't sign, however -- multiple sources say his mother nixed the deal, thinking they could do better -- and Everton withdrew its offer a month later. After Szetela had false starts with Manchester City and Manchester United, Everton made a much less lucrative bid last spring.
"I'm surprised he didn't accept," says Everton youth academy director Ray Hall, "because he was desperate to sign when he came over at the end of our season in April."
In the end, Szetela went through a half-dozen agents ("He had more agents than the FBI," says one) before finally signing a guaranteed three-and-a-half-year deal with MLS last week. Even with help from Adidas, which is investing well into six figures on Szetela's star potential, he'll be earning significantly less per year than he would have under the first Everton offer.
But money isn't always the most important thing, and Europe's loss is MLS's gain, even if the delay meant that Szetela would have less control over his destination. Recognizing that he just turned 17 last month, MLS is requiring that every team submit a plan describing Szetela's housing and transportation set-up (including guardians) in order to be eligible for the lottery.
"I feel really good about things now," Szetela says. "A lot of pressure is finally off my back, and now I can concentrate on soccer."
Szetela could be in uniform as soon as this weekend, and U.S. U-17 coach John Ellinger thinks he'll be ready. At a tournament in Minnesota this week, which included four first-team players from Mexico's Cruz Azul, "Danny was the best player on the field," Ellinger says.
I can't tell you how fired up I am for the K.C.-L.A. showdown on Saturday between the two best teams in MLS. "Kansas City is the best team in the league," says Dallas coach Colin Clarke, whose Burn lost to K.C. 1-0 last week. "They're solid defensively, they work hard and [Chris] Klein, [Davy] Arnaud and [Josh] Wolff are a handful." The Wiz have gone eight games without a loss ...
Snaps for the A-League's Richmond Kickers, Minnesota Thunder, Rochester Rhinos and Charleston Battery, which knocked off MLS foes this week (D.C. United, Los Angeles, New England and the MetroStars) to reach the quarters of the U.S. Open Cup ...
Peter Gansler of Adidas America says there might be potential tie-ins to the Three Stripes-backed soccer film Goal! for sponsored players like Szetela, Clint Mathis, Eddie Pope, Bobby Convey and Brad Friedel ...
Speaking of Convey, congratulations to the D.C. United midfielder on his reported transfer to Reading of the English First Division. As is the case with DaMarcus Beasley's move to PSV Eindhoven, it appears the 21-year-old Convey will get serious playing time, which can only help his rise at the international level ...
U.S. under-20 defender Jonathan Spector will be traveling with Manchester United's senior team during its American tour. It'll be a treat to see the progress of Spector, who was voted the youth player of the year last season at Man Utd ...
I know exactly where I'll be for Sunday's Copa America final between Argentina and Brazil: at the local Brazilian joint here in Boston, trying to have it both ways. Nothing like sucking down caipirinhas while secretly rooting for the Argies ...
Just so we're straight on the retirement plans of the U.S. women's team veterans: Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett have said the Olympics will be their last major tournament with the U.S. team (though it may not be their final U.S. games, since there may be additional "farewell" games following the Olympics). Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain have not announced any international retirement plans. And in case the WUSA returns in 2006, none of the players have announced their retirements from club soccer.
Opening the 'Bag
Got nearly 100 responses to last week's column about diving, which drew vocal outbursts on both sides of the issue. About 75 percent agreed with me, while another 25 percentácouldn't believe I'd be na´ve enough to criticize a practice that (as almost all the naysayers put it) is "part of the game."
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
A quick sampling of your takes:
As a soccer player in high school and college, and in adult leagues afterward, I have all but stopped watching matches on TV because of the constant flopping.
--Paul Gubbins, Raleigh, N.C.
The diving has been ridiculous for the past 20 years or so. Even in youth soccer kids are flopping down in pain trying to get a call.
--John Lontz, Burlington, N.J.
I had the same reaction to Wolff's flop and Marcelo Balboa's comments. I was especially disappointed in Wolff, who I've always rated as a player. I'm just glad my 9-year-od soccer-playing son didn't see it. What do you say to kids when players they admire blatantly cheat?
--Bruce Andrews, Austin, Texas
To find an example of perseverance, overcoming diversity and downright never diving, take a look at the U. S. women. They are THE example of sportsmanship in North American soccer.
--Wes McKean, Woodstock, Ga.
Diving is part of the game and part of most sports. Taking a charge in hoops? The punter falling at the slightest graze in football? Those are forms of flopping. Marcelo Balboa was dead on with his comments. If we ever want to compete at the highest levels we have to perfect the dive.
--Todd, Richmond, Va.
As a former striker turned defender, I happen to believe that the dive is a necessary part of the game. When I played the forward position, I was smaller and lighter than most defenders. I got roughed up a lot. One of my weapons was the dive. You have to use it sparingly, and I agree that Carlos Ruiz dives too much. However, one well-executed dive that gets the ref to blow his whistle will keep a defender off of you for a while, enabling a forward to use his skills without worrying about the contact from the bigger, stronger, more aggressive defenders.
--Unnamed NCAA Division I Soccer Player
Diving is part of the game and it protects the players. A player doesn't need to be bulldozed for it to be considered a foul. FIFA already punishes players for excessive diving. In defense of Ruiz, MLS is very physical and not very technical and he found a way to succeed. Good for him. Show me one top striker in the world who is not a master in diving and faking.
--Ivan Silva, San Francisco, Calif.
Have you ever played soccer at a competitive level?
--Ruben Mora, Sacramento, Calif.
Thanks to everyone for taking the time to write. I'd respond to the "pro-diving" or "let's be realistic" crowds with a few points.
For starters, diving is always going to exist in soccer, and I realize that it doesn't occur in a vacuum, but the actors in soccer do have a role in controlling their actions. It's up to attackers to stay up; it's up to defenders to play legit defense; it's up to referees to call fouls on both sides; and it's up to leagues to back up their zebras and penalize players for blatant dives after the fact if necessary. This isn't very complicated, folks.
Nor do I buy the argument about flopping by NFL punters or NHL attackers or Shane Battier/Vlade Divac trying to draw charges. As distasteful as those examples may be, none of them have anywhere near the impact on a game that one dive in the box can have on a soccer game. The difference is monumental.
You want me to show you one top striker in the world who is not a master of diving/faking? I'll show you Ronaldo's wondergoal at Santiago de Compostela.
You want me to show you that sportsmanship exists in win-at-all-costs soccer? I'll show you the common occurrence of teams giving possession back after their opponents have kicked the ball out of bounds due to an injury. (There's a reason why the crowd always claps.)
You want another example? I'll show you Arsenal agreeing to replay an FA Cup match in '99 after one of its players scored the winning goal by violating the custom in the last example.
And for Mr. Mora, who pulled out the "have you ever played" card, let's get something straight: It's great to hear the perspective of former players, whether it's Balboa or Eric Wynalda or my man Garth Lagerwey. Players bring a unique perspective to the table. But ask yourself this question when it comes to non-players: Should we dismiss the writings of all movie critics because they never made a movie themselves? Nonsense. Same thing in this racket.
Any news tips, questions or other thoughtful correspondence? Enter them above.
Have a great week.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl keeps you up to date with the world of U.S. soccer at SI.com.