ST. PETERSBURG — Georgi Hristov was the NASL's Most Valuable Player in 2013 but had seen a statistical slip in recent years. Saturday marked the height of a recent turnaround, a great sign for the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Hristov, a forward who scored the lone goal in Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup defeat of Cincinnati, slotted home two Saturday as the Rowdies won for a third time in eight days, dominating Ottawa 2-1 at Al Lang Stadium in front of 6,078.
"To play three games in one week is really, really hard, and we won all three," Hristov said. "The whole team has been working very hard. The goal scorer gets all the credit, but that really isn't the case."
The Rowdies are 4-2-3 (15 points) with one game left in the NASL's spring season, which they conclude Saturday at Jacksonville. Tampa Bay could win the spring season title thanks to first-place New York's defeat Saturday; the Rowdies would have to beat Jacksonville by at least six to make up the goal differential tiebreaker.
Hristov had one goal last season and two in 2014, and Saturday was just his fourth start of the spring. His finishing form Saturday resembled the 12-goal, eight-assist form that earned him the MVP in his first year with Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay took the lead 20 minutes in Saturday when Kalif Alhassan passed to Hristov, who scooted past two Fury defenders. He faced a tough angle and chipped the ball perfectly over goalkeeper Romuald Peiser.
"He was confident coming in, so (the two-goal night) doesn't surprise me. I thought he would give the ball back, but Georgi saw something different," Alhassan said.
Ottawa (2-5-2, eight points) came in with just seven goals and needed a bit of fortune for the eighth as a shot block by Rowdies midfielder Juan Guerra went to Carl Haworth, who made it 1-1 in the 49th minute.
"To be honest, for a split second I thought, 'Here we go again,' " Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said. "But we had the perfect response."
Less than four minutes later Tampa Bay was back on top when midfielder Joe Cole held the ball then passed to Hristov, who knocked it home.
Cole's free kick was saved in the 74th minute, then Alhassan's chip went just wide. For the first time in five games since joining the team, Cole — a bit dinged from an ankle injury — had to be subbed out as Justin Chavez came on in the 78th minute.