Photo by Patricia Giobetti/ISIPhotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
Sal Zizzo chuckled at the notion but nonetheless knew it was true. For the Portland Timbers midfielder, the circumstances surrounding his torn ACL last October were about as ideal as could be.
Zizzo, first off, knew what he was up against. When he injured the same knee two years earlier with German club Hannover 96, the damage actually was far more extensive. If he could come back once, he could do it again.
There also was the matter of timing. By going down in the third-to-last match of the campaign, he saw the silver lining presented by the offseason ahead.
“If there was a time for it to happen,” Zizzo said, “I guess you could say that game would have been it.”
It was a positive attitude that lifted Zizzo throughout his rehabilitation. Just seven months later, he was back on the field for Portland, coming on as a substitute in mid-May for a scoreless draw against the same Houston Dynamo side he suffered the injury against.
Zizzo, it turned out, was sidelined for just 11 league matches. After using a blend of starts and appearances off the bench to round himself into form, the 25-year-old has started nine of the Timbers’ past 10 matches, compiling a goal and four assists.
“It says a lot about his work ethic,” Portland captain Jack Jewsbury said. “Sometimes guys end up with injuries that get them down because you’re watching from the sidelines for most of the year. But he’s continued to stick with it, persevere through some tough times, and it’s great to see him come into his own.”
Over the years, Zizzo has become somewhat of an expert in the perseverance department.
Following a standout performance for the U.S. at the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, Zizzo departed UCLA early to sign with Hannover that summer. The future, it seemed, was bright.
As Zizzo now realizes, “I was a little bit naive.” He soon found his brash style of running on the ball at defenders wouldn’t fly unless he picked his moments more judiciously. Adjusting to the culture was another barrier for the California native. When he did start building momentum on the field, the October 2009 injury to his ACL and LCL derailed it.
Zizzo, who earned his only senior national team camp in August 2007, would spend most of his three seasons in Germany toiling with the reserves, making just eight Bundesliga appearances.
“Being a young American in the Bundesliga and not being able to speak the language, the hardest thing there is to kind of get your chance,” Zizzo said. “I look back and wish I could have been given a starting chance, a run at a couple of games just to see how I would have done. And I felt like I would have done well.
“But it’s a lot of pressure in that league when you’re dealing with relegation and lots of money on the line. It’s tough for a coach to make those types of tough decisions. To play a young guy that’s never really played before, it’s kind of throwing himself on the line.”
Once his Hannover contract expired, Zizzo in July 2010 entered MLS via the allocation process, joining Chivas USA before being shipped to Portland the subsequent offseason. He logged 30 matches last year before his injury, finally getting the first-team minutes his career had been devoid of.
While a torn knee ligament can be devastating to a winger who leans on pace the way Zizzo does, he has had no issues this season settling back into his role as a speedster on the right flank.
“You know he’s going to create some dangerous things,” Jewsbury said. “He’s a guy I definitely wouldn’t be wanting to play outside back against because with his speed alone, he just glides by you — and makes it look really easy.”
Looking back, Zizzo has no regrets about delaying his path to MLS by pursuing his dream abroad. The opportunity, no doubt, didn’t pan out the way he envisioned it. And yes, it’s safe to say he hasn’t reached his full potential.
But as a player in his mid-20s, Zizzo can cherish the experience while still keeping time on his side.
“I would still do everything the same,” Zizzo said. “You maybe only have that chance once in your career. I wouldn’t change it. The experience that I got, the relationships, the people, and just learning the German side of soccer and just their mentality, day in, day out at training, is invaluable.”