The path toward achieving a dream isn’t always clear-cut. In January, Stefan Antonijevic became the first ever player from Valparaiso University to be drafted into Major League Soccer when Sporting Kansas City used the 43rd pick in the MLS Supplemental Draft to acquire the 2011 Horizon League Defensive player of the year.
Unfortunately for Antonijevic, SKC decided they already had enough depth in defense and opted against offering the former Valparaiso University defender a place on the team. In fairness, SKC is one of the most talented teams in the league and has a perfect record to show for it so far this season.
“Stefan gets judged because of his size. He’s six to seven feet and not as big as everyone else,” said VU Men’s Soccer Head Coach Mike Avery. “He was the last cut at Sporting Kansas City, so that was disappointing. But it’s no insult to him. They are arguably the best team in the league, at least so far this season, and have two really good young central defenders.”
Sporting Kansas City’s defense has been a significant reason for their unbeaten record, as the league leaders have conceded just two goals in seven matches, meaning breaking into a defense like that would have been a tall order for rookie. As a result, Antonijevic was granted the opportunity to pursue an MLS contract elsewhere.
And Antonijevic is working on doing just that. Last month, the Serbian defender began training with the Chicago Fire as a guest player. Coincidentally, Antonijevic is also a Chicago Fire supporter after growing up in Buffalo Grove and was even a member of the Chicago Fire super-20 squad that won the 2008 USL (United Soccer League) title. Now, Antonijevic aims to impress Head Coach Frank Klopas and the rest of the coaching staff in hopes of being handed a spot on the roster.
“I’m a homegrown player, and my name’s been thrown around here and there,” Antonijevic said. “I’ve been a big fan since growing up. I said, ‘Hey why not, I’ll give it a try.’ If it doesn’t work out, I’ll use it to my advantage and stay in shape and stay in this high level. So far it’s just been positive from then on. I know it’s a process, but I feel like in the time being I can turn some heads around here.”
After several weeks of training with the first team, Antonijevic received his first opportunity Monday to really turn some heads amongst the Fire coaching staff. Antonijevic started for the Chicago Fire Reserves at Toyota Park against the Houston Dynamo Reserves to mark his first game since being invited to train with the team. Antonijevic started at center-back as part of a backline that included three MLS rookies, and the Fire managed to survive torrid conditions to earn a 1-0 win.
“It was my first chance to play, so I was a bit nervous,” Antonijevic said. “But playing at Toyota Park … you really can’t ask for more than that. I actually got to play against Houston for Kansas City’s reserves, so I knew what to expect. They have two big guys up front, but we took care of them. Even with the wind to their backs in the second half, I thought we did well, and it was nice to get a clean sheet.”
Antonijevic wasn’t the only former Horizon League player involved Monday. Green Bay’s standout defender, Tony Walls, was also a third round selection in the Supplemental Draft, and the Wisconsin native impressed enough during pre-season training to earn a place on the team last month. The big question is: Can Antonijevic make it two Horizon League players on the Chicago Fire roster?
“In the end of the day, it’s not my decision,” Antonijevic said. “Obviously the style of play was different (than Sporting Kansas City), but for me, I think I did well overall. I did a lot of good things, maybe a few bad things, but no one’s perfect.”
Antonijevic’s background as a former Chicago Fire Premier player bodes well for his chances of making the team, but forcing his way onto a talented roster is never easy. After all, Chicago’s main priority over the off-season was strengthening their defense, and they did so by adding four defenders to the roster and returning another defender from loan. One of those defenders includes Arne Friedrich – a World Cup runner-up with Germany in 2010 and one of the most experienced defenders to ever join the league.
Regardless, Antonijevic has appreciated his second chance with an MLS club and is enjoying the opportunity to train with the Chicago Fire and some of the most experienced players to ever grace the league.
“I’ve gained a lot of experience from all of the central defenders and try to simulate what they do. It’s good to talk to them and get some advice from them,” Antonijevic said. “Sooner or later, I hope to fulfill one of their roles, whether it’s for this team or another team.”
Arguably, Antonijevic couldn’t possibly have a better defender in the league to learn from than Friedrich, as well as Head Coach Frank Klopas, who made a name for himself during his playing days for the Fire before eventually taking up a coaching role with the club.
“It means a lot. I couldn’t ask for anything better to play for my own home team,” Antonijevic said. “I grew up watching Frankie play, Cory Gibbs and Marco Pappa. So it’s an honor to be next to these guys in the locker room and on the pitch every day. I’m very thankful to be in this position.”
Antonijevic hopes to be able to talk with the coaches next week and assess where he stands. In the meantime, the former VUMSO defender knows he can’t do much more than “continue to work hard and hope for the best.”
Highlights of Stefan Antonijevic playing for the Valparaiso University men’s soccer team:
In addition, here are his stats from 2011.