Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sports

Georgi Hristov's game sizzles for Rowdies

ST. PETERSBURG

Spring season? Don't make Georgi Hristov laugh.

Where Hristov, now in his fourth year both with the Rowdies and in the United States, grew up there actually was a spring season. In Bulgaria there's even an autumn, and this thing called snow in the winter.

"I'm very used to the four seasons. I really love the snow," Hristov said.

So forgive Hristov if he didn't exactly feel rejuvenation Saturday when the Rowdies played the finale of their "spring" season — in brutally sweltering conditions at Jacksonville. The game was a 4 p.m. kickoff.

"I've never felt like that before. You know how humid it gets in St. Pete, well those are 7:30 games. At 4 o'clock it's a nightmare," he said.

These days Hristov must settle for December trips back to Bulgaria. Maybe not from a weather standpoint, but in every other sense he has made himself at home with the Rowdies, and their fans are happy about it. His debut season saw Hristov win the league MVP, and although his stats have declined a tad, he's still among the most popular figures on the team.

It took awhile to get here.

Things were perfectly fine, Hristov growing up in the town of Velingrad, raised by his "angel" of a grandmother, Maria, who died two years ago. With brother Hristo and cousins Marin and Ivan, Hristov enjoyed the natural beauty of a town known for its abundant mineral waters.

"Water is just coming up out of the ground there. It's unbelievable," he said.

He picked up soccer when he was 10, actually a few years later than most, but quickly thrived. He matriculated through Maritsa Plovdiv academy (Plovdiv being about 50 miles from Velingrad) and debuted for the Maritsa senior club at age 17. Three years later he led the league with 18 goals. Two years after that he signed with Botev Plovdiv and had 19 more goals.

Hristov went up to Levski of capital city Sofia, scoring 12 goals across three seasons (2008-10). But his production declined to four goals in the next two, and it was time to make a move.

His cousins already had, coming to St. Petersburg in 2005.

"When the Rowdies came back (in 2008) they told me they wanted to come then. I knew very little about them, basically nothing. But I just wanted to change," said Hristov, who had never set foot outside Europe.

The move worked out extraordinarily well. Hristov was unstoppable that debut 2013 season in green and gold, scoring 12 goals, adding a league-high eight assists and earning the NASL Golden Ball as its league MVP.

He added a team-high 22 points in 2014 but the Rowdies slid to a seventh-place finish, and last year Hristov was held to two goals.

"When you become the MVP there's no other way, unless you win it again, that you're not going to go down," he said. "Last year I played a different position as midfielder, and of course I want to do more. But I never doubted myself. The hardest part in soccer is consistency. It's hard to go to the top and it's harder to stay there."

But recently he has trended back in that direction. After being held to one goal in the first eight matches, he broke through with three in two games, getting one in the Rowdies' U.S. Open Cup victory against Cincinnati, then two more about 72 hours later as Tampa Bay dropped Ottawa.

After coming on as a sub for five of the first seven matches, and playing midfield, Hristov got the start as the lone striker as Tampa Bay beat Minnesota on May 28. Minnesota hadn't allowed a goal at home all season.

Then against Cincinnati, Campbell switched to a three-forward alignment, with Hristov starting in all four games of an unbeaten (3-0-1) streak.

"He's kept his head down and when he's been given the opportunities, he's taken them," Campbell said. Hristov was named Player of the Week for his work. "I'm absolutely delighted for Georgi because he played really well. All of the players are working hard and helping our team earn positive results."

There is a humorous angle to Hristov's resurgence. The long pass from defender Neill Collins that sprung Hristov toward his goal against Cincinnati was hatched from a unique pregame meeting.

"We were, well, using the bathroom. And Neill just told me to make that run, be ready for that pass," Hristov said. "So it was a little uncomfortable but that goal started in the toilets."

The work against Cincinnati earned Tampa Bay a trip to Columbus to play MLS side the Crew in Wednesday's fourth-round U.S. Open Cup match.

It wasn't quite Bulgaria weather but it was a nice change of pace for Hristov.

"It's warm (in Columbus) but it's different. You can breathe here."

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