Thursday, December 14, 2017
Sports

Pain is a necessary evil for Tampa Bay Rowdies forward Daniel Antoniuk

TAMPA — Rowdies forward Daniel Antoniuk sat alone on a milk crate behind the training facility Wednesday, his swollen, bluish-purple-colored right foot resting inside a wastebasket filled with cold water and rapidly melting ice.

He grimaced as he lifted the from the ice bath.

"I jammed my toe in the game," he said, referring to Tuesday's 3-0 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup win at Jacksonville in which he scored. "It's okay; it's just a little swollen. Really, the ice is what hurts the worst. On the toes is the worst."

For Antoniuk, one of the North American Soccer League's most physically imposing players, pain is a necessary evil to playing the game he loves.

At 6 feet 3, 197 pounds, Antoniuk is Tampa Bay's tallest and heftiest player, adding a dimension to the Rowdies' attack that would be absent without him.

Like a basketball center posting up, Antoniuk carves out space near the goal, using his body to muscle defenders away while fending off an elbow to the back or a kick to the shin. He provides a giant target for crosses into the box and can rise above the crowd to place a header on goal. Or he can hold the ball up, distributing to a better option.

"The first thing everyone sees is his size, but there's more quality to him than just a big man," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said.

"He sees things around him. He interplays with people. … He's a good target man. He's very strong, but I like his overall awareness as well. He tries to link up with other people."

Hill noticed Antoniuk last season in a July 27 victory over Edmonton at Al Lang Field. Antoniuk, then with Edmonton, stood out with an assist.

"He gave our two center halves a hard time by holding the ball up and bringing people into the game, and he was a constant threat in that respect that enabled the team to get a little further up the park and to play a little more in the opposition's half," Hill said. "So I felt something like that was something we missed from last year."

Antoniuk, 31, signed with the Rowdies on Jan. 31 but wasn't allowed to train with the club until two weeks before the season opener. Antoniuk aggravated his groin early in 2012 helping the San Diego Shockers indoor team win the Professional Arena Soccer League championship, and he wasn't cleared by the Rowdies' medical staff to begin practicing until preseason camp was almost over.

Antoniuk was a substitute in the first six games, scoring a goal and assisting on another during that stretch. He started against San Antonio on May 12 and scored in a 2-1 loss. A week later at Atlanta, Antoniuk produced two goals in a 3-2 win at Atlanta and was named the NASL offensive player of the week.

Tuesday, starting his third straight game, he also had an assist in the U.S. Open Cup second-round matchup.

"Whether you start or come off the bench, you're just trying to help the team any way you can and be an impact," Antoniuk said. "So far, I've been fortunate to do that."

Antoniuk has played for half of the current NASL teams — the other two are Atlanta and Carolina — in a professional career that dates to 2003. In 2007 he led the NASL in points and assists with Atlanta. By his estimation, Antoniuk has moved 20 times in nine years, bouncing between the indoor and outdoor game.

Now he's ready to stick with one squad for the remainder of his career. Early returns suggest Tampa Bay could be a perfect fit for the striker.

"He seems to have made a nice start here," Hill said, "and I'm hoping that it's just something that he can build on and there's bigger and better things ahead of us."

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