GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Daniel Antunez was the last player off the Estudiantes Tecos training pitch on Wednesday. Some of the other players had already headed home by the time the 25-year-old midfielder hit the showers.
That should come as no surprise. The much-traveled Antunez only recently returned to full training after tearing the ACL in his left knee during a routine drill back in April. Now, after a long rehabilitation assignment, he's battling for a place in the club’s squad come this winter.
The Santa Ana, Calif., native is clearly delighted to be back kicking the ball around, and it seems his time off has only increased his hunger to get back in the game.
“I want to win championships,” the soft-spoken Antunez told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday in the Estudiantes offices.
The former Colorado Rapids draft pick is also determined to prove himself in his latest stop: Mexico’s Primera División, which he was just getting used to before the injury after signing for Tecos in December 2010.
“I haven’t really had an opportunity to show myself in this league,” he said. “I would want to stay in Mexico, especially now that I had somewhat of a misfortune.”
However, his comeback trail — the latest obstacle in a young career that has seen Antunez suit up in three different continents — will require a little more patience.
The Estudiantes hierarchy, together with former coach José Luis “Chelis" Sánchez, decided to leave Antunez out of this season’s 25-man squad to give him time to get fit and give him every chance to prove himself for the Clausura 2012.
For Antunez to achieve his lofty Mexican ambitions, the first step is to earn a spot at Estudiantes in January.
The former California and Texas All State player describes his time out as “somewhat depressing,” although he praises the Estudiantes staff and those close to him for their support.
“The most difficult time was the first few months when I wasn’t able to do any jogging,” said Antunez, who partly filled the time by taking up painting and playing the guitar.
On Antunez’s side is his vast experience moving from place to place as a young soccer player. When he was a teenager, he was forced to prove himself to a new high school team after his family relocated to East Texas. He then played a year of college ball at a nearby junior college before transferring to the University of Hartford.
His pro career has been even more vagabond. The Rapids selected him in the third round of the 2008 Supplemental Draft, but they never offered him a contract. The next three years included a spell with Atlante’s Under-20s, a successful year at Finland first-division side FC Inter Turku in 2010, a stint with the Rochester Rhinos and even a six-month jaunt to Brazil in between.
“I’ve kind of been away from my family long enough that I’ve gotten used to it," he said. “I just want to learn as much as I can from the places that I play and take the best I can from those experiences.”
It was his time in Brazil that took most getting used to during a brief trial run with lower-division Brasilis Futebol Club, located in a small town about 100 miles north of São Paulo. Antunez was in awe of the amount of talent and level of competitiveness in the jôgo bonito.
“I always saw a player that was older than me or played at the same club with a kind of admiration,” he said. “In Brazil, it is very different. They just go after you. You have to earn everything you have there. It’s very competitive."
The midfielder’s desire to stay in Mexico is also influenced by the fact he grew up watching Mexican soccer, attending Toluca games when his family traveled south for vacations every December.
Nevertheless, it was an American legend who inspired Antunez to get out on the field and play some organized soccer.
“I watched Tony Meola at World Cup 1994 and told my uncle and granddad I wanted to be like him,” laughed Antunez. “A week later, they took me to a team and I started playing as a goalkeeper.”
Down in Mexico, Antunez gets his dose of American culture from Estudiantes teammate Herculez Gomez, although the two are singled out for dressing room banter as the resident “gringos.” That doesn't bother Antunez in the least.
“I think I look more Mexican than them!” he laughed. “I think Herculez has a bigger problem than I do."
For now, earning a spot with Tecos is the goal, but when his business is finished in Mexico, Antunez says MLS appeals to him and heaps praise on the league's progress.
“It’s a very competitive league,” believes Antunez. “You now see teams getting to the finals in the CONCACAF Champions League and before it was always Mexican teams.”
His preferred destination is FC Dallas, closest to his family.
“It’d be nice to have the whole family there watching,” admitted Antunez.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.