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Rowdies find an extra spark in playing their old team

in Sports/The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Call it a little bit of gas for the fire.

Call it an extra dose of motivation. Call it a chip on the shoulder. Call it a spur in the backside.

A chance to prove yesterday wrong.

For members of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Saturday night’s game will be a fine opportunity to show the Strikers what they let slip away.

All of this was theirs, of course. Martin Nunez and Stefan Antonijevic and Darnell King and Kamil Contofalsky and Justin Chavez. Two more players, Brian Shriver and Gale Agbossoumond, played for Miami FC, which was rebranded as the Strikers in 2011. Coach Thomas Rongren played for the Strikers for three seasons in the early ’80s.

And so it goes. It is as if a lot of Strikers did their undergraduate work with the Rowdies.

There is a part of every professional athlete who wants to prove that his former club messed up when they let him go. This is no different. When the Rowdies play the Strikers at Al Lang at 7:30 p.m., it will be more than a rivalry at stake. There will be a reacquaintance.

“For me, personally,” this is where I started my professional career,” said Antonijevic. “We made such a great run and had such a great chemistry. For that to end so quickly (after two seasons), it kind of eats at me. But you have to move on.”

Nunez feels the same. He spent four years with the Strikers and scored 17 goals. But the team’s new owners and he could not come to terms. So he moved here, and it has worked out. He has scored twice in the last three weeks.

As for Antonijevic, he’s been on a member of the league’s best 11 three times in six weeks.

“I think you always want to do well when you play your ex-team,” Nunez said. “The game is a little more important. Every game is important, but maybe there is a little more extra motivation. You want to show them that your move was good. You always have to prove yourself.”

When he was with the Strikers, Nunez seemed like such a natural fit. He was born in Uruguay, but from the age of 9, he grew up in South Florida in the Kendall suburb of Miami.

Now, he is on his way to being a key member of a team farther upstate.

“It’s been a big rivalry for years,” Nunez said. “The fans love it. The team loves it. It’s big for both teams. It’s like a Florida Classic. You want to win that game.”

“There are a lot of reasons this game is important,” Antonijevic said. “The in-state rivalry. The bragging rights. And we have a bye the next week, so we want to get all three points where we don’t have to worry about anyone passing us.”

To Nunez, the Rowdies are a team that is “getting better every day.” There were so many new faces, so many adjustments to be made. To him, they are better this week than last, and better last week than the week before.

“We want to make the playoffs,” he said, “and then anything can happen.”

Antonijevic likes this team, too.

“I don’t think there is a limit,” he said. “We can be very good.”

Antonijevic was born in Phoenix and raised in the United States. But his father Sole is Serbian, from Yugoslavia, who played with the big teams in his home country. Antonijevic laughs about having a soccer ball in his crib.

“If I had known I was going to be 6-6, I might have played basketball,” he jokes. “A shooter.”

Instead, he is a defender.

As a sport, soccer is blossoming in the United States. A headline in the Guardian this week wonders if Florida will become the new capital of sports in this country. As evidence it offers these figures: 157,160. That’s the attendance of the teams in Orlando (four games), Jacksonville (two), Tampa Bay (two) and Fort Lauderdale (three).

Antonijevic imagines much of the same. The fans will be loud. The scene will be crazy.

The night? It will be perfect.

***

The Rowdies could have an extra home game in the U.S. Open Cup. On Thursday, it drew the winner of the West Virginia Chaos and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. If Pittsburgh wins, the game will be in Pittsburgh. If West Virgina wins, it will be in St. Petersburg.

 

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit [email protected]

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