Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sports

Stefan Antonijevic's fortunes rise with Rowdies

ST. PETERSBURG

For a guy who stands apart from the crowd, 6-foot-6 Stefan Antonijevic has found it difficult to stand out sometimes. Such is the plight of a defensive player in soccer.

Being of Serbian descent makes it even rougher.

"Eastern Europeans are very proud and very stubborn people, and I think that shows in my game" says Antonijevic. "Have I had to tone it down a little? Yeah, of course. We're not like forwards who get to score a goal and go caress something. … Defense, it's all blood and guts, no glory, so that glory is something you have to fight for."

This season, the popular second-year Rowdie has had a different kind of fight, and it has tested that Serbian pride.

It's the fight for playing time. When the team signed Neill Collins this offseason, and with captain Tam Mkandawire and Darnell King being must-starts, and the presence of talented returners Ben Sweat and Zac Portillos — someone has to sit.

Antonijevic, who started 21 games last season missing time only due to injury, has been that guy. He's not alone: Frankie Sanfilippo, Tampa Bay's captain in 2014, returned after appearing in 31 matches for Fort Lauderdale last season and has only seen the pitch in U.S. Open Cup play.

"It's a learning experience," admits Antonijevic. "Of course going from playing every game, lots of personal accolades, to taking a step backwards rather than forward has been very difficult. But you have to be a good teammate. That's how good teams win."

Though not under the preferred set of circumstances, it looks like Antonijevic will get more playing time. In a 1-1 draw against Jacksonville on Saturday, he came on for his first action of the season, replacing an injured Mkandawire at halftime, and later Collins also was forced out with an injury.

Antonijevic is certainly used to starting. And yes, he's used to being asked about his height, specifically pertaining to his choice of sport.

"I get that every day," he said. "They'll look at me and say, 'Wait, isn't Lionel Messi 5-foot-3 and how tall are you? And you're not playing basketball?"

Growing up in the Chicago area — his parents Sole' and Mimi moved to the Serbian-heavy town from then-Yugoslavia before he was born — Antonijevic had even less of a likelihood of playing soccer, what with all the other options.

"I didn't like baseball. Hockey, I played it once. I didn't understand it, and basketball … the one thing I remember there were so many set plays, it was very robotic. Soccer was my first love," he said.

And a growth "spurt" actually never happened. Antonijevic says he was 6-2 during his senior season at Chicago's Stevenson High School, and just grew a half-inch or so every year.

That made for more of those "seriously, WHAT sport?" moments in college as he attended two basketball schools (Marquette and Valparaiso). He was drafted by MLS's Sporting Kansas City in 2012 but ended up trying out for teams in Serbia and Croatia, returning to the states and playing the 2013-14 seasons with Fort Lauderdale.

In his second season with Tampa Bay, Antonijevic says he's been mistaken for Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, also 6-6, on numerous occasions.

It can happen when you stand out.

"I didn't even realize hockey players were that tall," he said. "At the start of each season when you have physicals they measure your height. It's been kind of funny. Last year I was 6-5 ½ and I'm like, 'What?' now I'm 6-6 and it's what the heck! But soccer is a passion for me. I could be 7 feet tall and still would want to play."

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