TAMPA — Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov had fulfilled nearly every goal he set out to accomplish during his soccer career in his native Bulgaria.
In his first season (2007-08) playing in the country's top division, Hristov, then 22, scored 19 goals for Botev Plovdiv and was chosen as the best player in the league by a vote of his peers.
The next season, Hristov suited up for Levski Sofia, one of the country's top clubs and his favorite team growing up.
He scored against Levski's biggest rival, CSKA Sofia. He led Levski to the Bulgarian first division championship in 2009. He competed in Europa League matches against Spanish first-division team Villarreal and Lazio, helping to defeat the Italian first-division side in Rome.
In January, Hristov decided he wanted something different. He had heard how the level of soccer in the United States had improved dramatically. He wanted to experience it.
"I needed to change something, because if you don't change something, you're stagnant," he said. "I didn't have big offers from European teams, so I decided to come to the U.S."
That decision turned out to be fortuitous for the Rowdies.
Hristov, now 28, joined the Rowdies as a trialist during the preseason and was signed to a contract six days after his debut against USF.
He has started all 10 matches for the Rowdies (eight NASL, two U.S. Open Cup) and played nearly every minute. (In the season opener, he was substituted in the 90th minute, the only time he has come off the field.)
Hristov leads the Rowdies, who play at Carolina on Saturday, with seven goals in all games and is 3-for-3 converting penalty kicks.
"The first day he came, he showed that he has a good soccer IQ," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said.
"He was very comfortable in possession of the ball, and he fit in very, very well from the get-go. You could tell he's played at a high level."
Hristov — who speaks English well thanks to his mother, who pushed him to learn the language at a young age — initially had a trial period with Major League Soccer's Philadelphia Union in February.
He was impressive, but the Union was unable to sign him because it had reached its quota of foreign players (in MLS, teams are allowed eight international slots).
Union coach John Hackworth called Rowdies executive vice president Perry Van Der Beck and informed him of Hristov. He told Van Der Beck that Hristov was capable of competing at the MLS level.
The Rowdies brought Hristov in for a look and were immediately sold.
"We were delighted to be able to offer him (a deal)," Hill said. "It was difficult for us at that time, too, because we'd spent most of our budget and we expected a player of Georgi's caliber could demand more elsewhere. But we're delighted that we were able to negotiate well enough to keep him here."
With forwards Mike Ambersley and Carl Cort unable to play due to injury, the addition of Hristov has proven invaluable for the Rowdies, his guile and technical ability in the final third allowing the club to remain an offensive threat coming off its 2012 NASL championship season.
"Georgi's been able to give us that missing ingredient and to have certain control of games in advanced areas and retain possession more consistently than maybe we would do without," Hill said.
Hristov, too, has benefitted from the move.
"I really like it here," he said. "I'm so thankful to the players for making me feel welcome since my first day. It feels like home. I'm happy."