“In Bulgaria we say, it’s not so easy to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.”
That’s the challenge for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the home stretch of the NASL regular season according to team leader Georgi Hristov.
Corey Hertzog was rightly praised for his incredible finish on Saturday’s game-winning goal against the Cosmos, but the service from Hristov to set the forward up for the goal was impeccable.
The sequence was one of the highlights from the Rowdies commanding 2-0 victory over the league leaders, a performance that can easily be considered the best overall performance by the club this entire season.
“It was a really good game, from the first minute to the last minute. I’m very happy that we did exactly what we were told to do by the coaching staff,” says Hristov. “I’m really happy with the win, but at the same time it’s already gone. Our heads shouldn’t be thinking about last Saturday. We just have to do the same and look forward. That’s what really matters right now.”
Despite tallying a league-leading nine assists, Hristov has mostly remained out of the spotlight this season. The former NASL MVP isn’t overly concerned with recognition, though, and just hopes that the changes by new head coach Stuart Campbell can allow him to round out the rest of his game.
“I think there’s always a higher level for me. I am leading the league in assists, but I am not only happy with this. I want more. I want to score goals and I think it’ll come,” insists the veteran attacker. “I was played in a very different role [before the coaching change]. I was played behind where the forwards play. I’m not complaining because I love that position too, it’s why I have so many assists this year. At the same time, I also like to score goals and I think that playing deeper into other teams gives me more freedom and more confidence. Now I have someone who believes in me like Stuart.”
Hristov has returned the favor with strong confidence in the new Rowdies boss. Only the injured Keith Savage has more appearances for Tampa Bay to his name, so Hristov’s support for Campbell carries a lot of weight on a roster full of young players and first time Rowdies.
“The thing about Stuart is that he’s one of those people that everyone loves. Everyone has respect for him. Also, he’s really young for his job and that gives him extra motivation. He’s hungry and I think he does deserve a chance now. Everyone on the team is really excited to turn things around now. At the end of the day it’s all about what we do on the field and in training. It’s not important what we do outside. The most important thing is to spend time with the ball. That’s what I think we didn’t do a lot before.”
In the heat of the moment after Saturday’s triumph over the rival Cosmos, the 31-year-old attacker was candid about his feelings that the coaching change from Thomas Rongen to Campbell three weeks ago was the right move. He was slightly more reserved about the matter when the Unused Substitutes spoke to him on Friday afternoon, though.
That being said, indications are strong that there was a rift between Rongen and Hristov. Rongen chose to leave Hristov on the bench for a significant chunk of games in the middle of the season, a fact that makes his assist count all the more impressive.
“I’m not really in a position where I can make statements regarding what’s right or not right. There are people who are higher than me in the club and they made that decision. It’s my job to do my best, which I’ve always done. It doesn’t matter if it’s Thomas Rongen or Stuart Campbell.”
That focus will be necessary to the Rowdies mounting a successful playoff run for the final nine regular season games. The club currently sits in the final playoff spot, but a handful of clubs are within striking distance should the Rowdies stumble.
Hristov acknowledges that the road trip to Edmonton is always a tough task for any team and the Rowdies need to improve their road form quickly if they hope to make the postseason. He believes that the second half in Ottawa two weeks ago was a good sign that the players are responding well to the late-season pressure.
“It’s just totally different now. We have a different attitude,” replied Hristov when asked about the club’s road woes. “Everyone knows what to do on the field and knows his role. Right now, if we don’t do well we’re going to be out of the playoffs. Everyone knows this. That’s why we played so well in Ottawa and against the Cosmos. I mean, I don’t really know why we haven’t done well since the beginning of the season. We have some of the best players in the league, so if you’re not doing well, I don’t know… I’m not sure.”
Campbell, Hristov and the rest of the Rowdies will have plenty of opportunity to showcase the new attitude against a dangerous Edmonton side that defeated Tampa Bay early in the Fall Season.
IMAGE, PATRICK PATTERSON