In late February, Bulgarian striker Georgi Hristov came to the Tampa Bay Rowdies as an unknown trialist just hoping to find a spot on the roster.
Within two weeks, Hristov had made the team and soon a place in the starting lineup. By midseason, he had established himself as arguably the Rowdies' greatest attacking threat, a tireless worker with a knack for always being in the right position to score goals.
Friday, Hristov was selected the North American Soccer League's Golden Ball winner, the award for the league's player of the year.
"I was really surprised because I expected to be probably in the Best XI team, but winning the MVP is a great honor for me, especially coming here in February and not knowing much about the league or even if I would be on the team," Hristov said.
Hristov beat out teammate midfielder Luke Mulholland, Carolina RailHawks forward Brian Shriver and New York Cosmos midfielder Marcos Senna for the award in a vote by the league's media.
The 28-year-old native of Bulgaria scored 12 goals and had eight assists in league play for the Rowdies despite missing four of the team's final five matches due to a severe foot bruise. Hristov finished tied for third in the race for most league goals, three behind Shriver, who won the Golden Boot award given to the league's goal-scoring champion on Monday. Hristov and Mulholland tied for the league lead in assists.
"Without the efforts of the whole team during the season, I wouldn't have won this award," said Hristov, who signed a two-year deal with the Rowdies in March with the second year a club option. "I'm really thankful to my teammates for making sure I fit in right away when I came here, and I'm really thankful to (Rowdies coach) Ricky Hill who is one of the best coaches I've ever had. He really believed in me from the start and gave me a chance to prove myself."
Additionally, Hristov scored all three Rowdies' goals in their three U.S. Open Cup matches. His goal against MLS' Seattle Sounders FC in a third-round Cup game ranks as one of the biggest in Rowdies history. The Rowdies made their deepest run in the Cup competition this season, advancing to the fourth round before bowing out to the Portland Timbers of MLS.
"I think the goal against Seattle was a really big moment not only for me but for the whole club," he said.
Hristov was also voted onto the NASL's Best XI team by the league's coaches as was Mulholland, who scored 11 goals and had eight assists. For Mulholland, the selection was his second in two seasons with the Rowdies.