Ahead of schedule, Zizzo nears return after knee injury

Speedy Portland midfielder eager to be a factor in Timbers attack

Sal Zizzo, Timbers Reserves vs. Sounders Reserves, 4.10.12

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Photo courtesy Sounders FC

Sal Zizzo has been in this position before.

As a promising young player at UCLA, Zizzo was part of a U.S. U-20 National Team that reach the quarterfinals of the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada. His play, including starts in all five U.S. games, brought interest from German Bundesliga side Hannover 96.

Zizzo, who holds dual Italian and American citizenship due to both of his parents being born in Italy, decided to leave school early in favor of signing with Hannover 96 in order to start his professional career abroad in July 2007.

Two seasons in Germany saw Zizzo make the vast majority of his appearances with Hannover’s reserve squad, while also making a handful of substitute appearances with the first team.

Misfortune struck early in the 2009-2010 season as Zizzo sustained a torn ACL to his left knee during training — the same ACL which the 25-year-old winger would tear on Oct. 14, 2011 against the Houston Dynamo at JELD-WEN Field.

“The first one happened in training, it was completely different,” Zizzo said. “I tore the LCL as well and that’s the main part of the knee that is bothersome, the ACL is just kind of in-between. The first recovery was harder, it was about eight months.”

Zizzo is nearing the six-month mark in the recovery process following a first season with the Timbers that saw the speedy midfielder make 30 appearances and record three assists.

Fully cleared by doctors to resume normal soccer activity, Zizzo is back training with the squad ahead of schedule and has played 78 minutes in two matches with the Timbers Reserves, most recently starting and playing the first half of a 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders FC Reserves on April 10 (above).

“I think he’s made a quick recovery,” Timbers head coach John Spencer said. “I wouldn’t say he’s ready to play in a first team game. I think we’ve taken this length of time with him and it’s important that we don’t do something stupid that gives him a setback.

“Once he completes two or three 90-minute reserve games then I think he’ll be eligible to be looked at for the first team.”

The next two Timbers Reserve games are on April 22 (at Vancouver Whitecaps FC) and May 27 (vs. Vancouver), but the Timbers also host Spain’s Valencia CF on May 23 — which could present another opportunity for Zizzo to earn crucial match fitness.

“(Last year) was probably the most playing time I’ve got as a professional at the highest level. It was good to finally almost get a full season under my belt,” said Zizzo, who was also a standout centerfielder for San Diego’s Patrick Henry High School baseball team. “I still expect even better things this year even though I’m coming off an injury. I don’t expect less, this isn’t an excuse for me to just cruise this season. I want to come back and be a factor.”

Zizzo spent most of the offseason in Portland rehabbing at the Providence Sports Care Center at the southeast corner of JELD-WEN Field and hanging out with childhood friend Steven Wilson, who serves as head chef of Zizzo’s appropriately-named, downtown Portland food cart, Zizzo’s FC.

Despite the injury, Zizzo has faced the recovery with optimism, having gone through it two years ago before leaving Germany to sign with MLS in July 2010. Chivas USA acquired Zizzo in a weighted lottery and the midfielder made 10 appearances in the 2010 MLS season following his first ACL injury.

“This time it wasn’t as traumatizing when it happened,” said Zizzo, who came to Portland during the 2011 preseason after the Timbers sent allocation money to Chivas USA in exchange for the San Diego native. “It tore, I got it fixed two days later and then got (the recovery) going.”

Zizzo has been wearing a brace on his left knee, which he said restricts his ability to get a full running stride, but is excited to get back into competitive action for the Timbers.

“As a player, obviously I’m eager to get started,” Zizzo said. “You don’t want to do something stupid and come back too early. That’s the coaches approach and the team’s approach in not wanting to rush me back and have me for the long haul.”