TAMPA — Rowdies forward Aaron Wheeler exited the field after a 2-1 victory over Puerto Rico two weeks ago with an upper gum held together by a row of neatly crisscrossing stitches.
One front tooth, outlined by a thin stain of blood, clung wobbly to the swollen gum.
He was bruised and battered.
And yet it was all Wheeler could do to suppress his mangled smile as he walked off triumphantly.
For Wheeler, who scored the first Rowdies goal, the pain represented a job well done.
"I'll put my head in where it's not supposed to be," said Wheeler on Thursday, sporting a clear brace across his top front teeth that will remain for the next two weeks.
"I'll get little toe pokes here and there. I just put my body in there, do whatever it takes to get the ball. My thing is I'll pretty much sacrifice anything for a goal or to help the team."
The 6-foot-5 Wheeler, 22, wasn't always a forward. He'll be the first to tell you he's not the fastest to line up at that position. He's not a smooth, finesse player like the prototypical forward, and his finishing isn't as clinical as he'd like it to be.
But Wheeler knows how to score. He has done it at every level of his career, and lately he has emerged as the primary scoring threat on a Rowdies team filled with them.
"Generally, I've always played an attacking center midfield role for most of my life," he said. "I haven't played much forward, just thrown up top at the end of games just because of my pace and my target size."
As a freshman center midfielder at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., Wheeler scored nine times and was named to the All-South Atlantic Conference team. He played center back as a sophomore and had three goals. He was switched to an attacking role for his junior year and led the Bears with 13 goals.
That scoring pace carried over during Wheeler's one-year stint with the Reading Rage of the United Soccer Leagues' Premier Development League. In his first season playing forward exclusively, Wheeler tallied a league-high 17 goals and was named the 2009 league MVP.
"I would say that's the year that put me on the map, really," he said. "I had been all-conference and all-region and stuff like that at school, but I think that was the first time I opened a few people's eyes. I was just able to take advantage of the situation, really."
Wheeler signed with Vancouver of the U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 after the Rage's season ended but failed to impress in 21/2 months and wasn't retained.
Four days after being let go, Wheeler attended a tryout for the burgeoning Rowdies franchise and was signed in early January.
He has embraced his role as the Rowdies' top scoring option. He has played in all 10 games, starting seven. He leads the team with four goals and is tied for fifth in the U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2.
All of which means the gangly striker is likely to become a fixture up top for the Rowdies.
"God willing, I don't lose my teeth at the age of 22," he joked.