Georgi Hristov (left) is emerging as an offensive force for the Rowdies. CHRIS URSO/STAFF
BY MICHAEL MANGANELLO/Tribune correspondent
Published: June 11, 2013
Updated: June 11, 2013 at 08:58 PM
Georgi Hristov is far from home, but he’s doing what makes him comfortable — scoring goals.
Hristov, a 28-year-old forward in his debut season with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, has led the line for the North American Soccer League team and is in the top five in the league in goals, assists and minutes played.
Tonight, he will lead the Rowdies into a fourth-round road match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers FC at 10:30 p.m.
A native of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Hristov spent the majority of his career playing in Eastern European leagues before moving to the United States this winter.
He won third-, second- and first-division titles with various Bulgarian teams and considers being named the Bulgarian Football Player of the Year by his peers while playing with Levski Sofia in 2007-08 one of his greatest accomplishments. He also remembers playing with Levski Sofia and beating Italian powerhouse Lazio in Rome in the 2009-10 Europe League, Europe’s second-tier international tournament.
Out of a contract and feeling he had accomplished enough in Europe, Hristov made the jump to the United States, embarking on a trial with Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union this year.
“I felt I had to make some changes in my life,” he said. “I already won everything in Bulgaria. I won the league. I won the league cup. I won the national cup. I won top goal-scorer in each of the top three divisions.”
Hristov said his trial went well and the Union wanted to sign him, but was prevented from doing so by the league’s international player limitations. Hristov heard the game was growing more popular in Florida and has two cousins who live in St. Petersburg, where the Rowdies were coming off a title-winning season.
Hristov signed with the Rowdies and fit in immediately.
He is tied for the team lead with four NASL goals and has scored all three of the team’s goals in two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup victories — a 2-1 win against VSI Tampa Bay FC in the second round and a 1-0 upset of the Seattle Sounders FC of MLS on May 29 in the third round.
Head coach Ricky Hill attributed Hristov’s quick adaptation to his impressive intellect and varied skill set.
“He can do a bit of everything, not only take chances and finish well, but he’s also very capable in link-up play and in one-on-one situations,” Hill said. “He’s one of those players where he’s really an all-rounder with high intelligence in terms of his soccer IQ.”
Hristov’s goal to knock off the Sounders earned the Rowdies a chance to challenge another MLS team.
“We understand Portland is no easy task,” Hill said. “They are a very accomplished side having a really good season and it’s a very difficult place to play. The odds are stacked against us. We’re going to have to play our best.”