ST. PETERSBURG — A little more than a year ago, striker Georgi Hristov was looking to catch on with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Not only did Hristov earn a spot, but also he had a tremendous 2013 season and earned the North American Soccer League’s Golden Ball, the season’s most valuable player award.
Hristov, who was born in Bulgaria, said earning the postseason award won’t change him.
“I think I’ll keep doing the same thing I always have, give 100 percent of yourself every day,” Hristov said. “I’ve been a professional soccer player for 10 years, so I haven’t really changed anything. In my country we say, ‘you have to leave your heart out on the field.’
“So that’s what I’m trying to do every day, the same thing I did last year and the same thing I have done my whole career.”
Hristov, 29, had 12 goals and eight assists in 2013 and returns to head the Rowdies’ attack as the NASL spring season begins tonight at Al Lang Stadium. Tampa Bay will host FC Edmonton in the season opener, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.
Joining Hristov in the attack will be new forward Brian Shriver, winner of last season’s Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer. Shriver, a Clearwater High graduate, returns to the Tampa Bay area after scoring 15 goals for the Carolina RailHawks a year ago.
Both Shriver and Hristov were named to the NASL Best XI team last season.
“To see what’s being put into the team and this organization, and for me to be able to come back and play in front of friends and, more importantly, family is a huge opportunity,” Shriver said. “I feel that there is something special going on here, and I’m pretty excited.”
Shriver said he looked forward to joining the Rowdies after competing against them last year.
“Playing against Georgi and the other guys, getting a chance to see how good they are,” Shriver said, “to come in and join them will hopefully make me a better player, and I hope I can help what they have in place.”
Rowdies management also had to find a new option at goalkeeper after last year’s starter, Diego Restrepo, injured his Achilles tendon days into preseason workouts. The solution came with the signing of Matt Pickens, a Major League Soccer veteran who spent 10 years with the Colorado Rapids. Pickens made 116 appearances for the Rapids and helped Colorado to a 2010 MLS Cup victory.
“I think things look very promising for this team, on and off the field,” general manager Perry Van Der Beck said. “We made some big signings, brought back some fan favorites and we feel like we’ve built a championship-caliber team.”
Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said the offense has a lot of firepower, but the Rowdies also have a talented defense, led by captain Frankie Sanfilippo and Takuya Yamada, and the team brought back JP Rodrigues, a member of the 2012 championship team and a Land O’ Lakes High graduate.
“If I had to name our major strength, it would be that we have some creative players here,” Hill said. “But I think, as we showed in the championship game, was that defense wins championships.”
The NASL season is split into a spring and fall season, with an overall winner for each season and the next two teams with the combined best records playing in the four-team playoffs.
Last season, the Rowdies went a combined 10-8-8, finishing fourth in the spring season and third in the fall. The New York Cosmos won last year’s Soccer Bowl championship game, defeating the Atlanta Silverbacks 1-0.
The personnel changes also come with a new owner for the Rowdies, as St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards purchased controlling interest in December. Edwards quickly made changes, including increasing the team’s budget.
“I’m delighted I’m at the helm right now, and I know the players are determined in repaying the faith that Bill has shown in the organization,” Hill said. “Now it’s down to the players and myself to assure that we have a good night.”