MLSsoccer.com looks back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our fourth annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with one of the icons of MLS 1.0, World Cup hero Hristo Stoitchkov. (Check out more from the series here.)
Where He Was Then
Hristo Stoitchkov was the Jermain Defoe of the 2000 MLS season.
Back then, the big-name stars were known as allocated players, the precursors to the Designated Players of today, and they were signed by the league office and allocated to the team that proved the best fit.
In 2000, that home for Stoitchkov was the Chicago Fire. And the Bulgarian's intimidating, tough-guy image lifted a team that was already pretty good under head coach Bob Bradley (they won MLS Cup in 1998 and made the playoffs in 1999) and made it special – enough to make both the final of the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup in his first year.
Once part of Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team" at Barcelona, Stoitchkov moved to Chicago in 2000 and helped the Fire win a US Open Cup and reach their second MLS Cup final.
"I put Chicago on the same level as Barcelona, the Bulgarian national team and CSKA Sofia," he told FutbolMLS.com's Tiro Libre podcast in an in-depth interview last week. "The same level. I came here at 32, 33 years old, but I enjoyed it like I was an 18-year-old."
He credits Bradley for that – "A spectacular person; no one can take away the friendship I have with Bob," he says – and says the two still remain in regular contact today.
But after three seasons in Chicago that were riddled by injuries, both Bradley and Stoitchkov moved on. Bradley took the helm in New York, while Stoitchkov became a player-coach for Ray Hudson at D.C. United. It proved his final year as a player, but one that was marred by an incident that still haunts him to this day.
In a preseason friendly against American University on March 25, 2003, a Stoitchkov tackle broke the leg of then 19-year-old freshman Freddy Llerena. A lawsuit was filed in 2007 and eventually settled.
"I have a bad, bad memory that will exist for all my history as a soccer player, because I never injured another player," Stoitchkov recalled. "It was a soccer tragedy that I fell on top of a kid and broke his leg, and this will stay with me my whole life.
"I played more than 20 years and I never had the intention to injure a fellow player in my life. But the ball was cleared and I ended up on him and I don't even know how it happened. That's the truth."
Llerena, who says he idolized Stoitchkov growing up, has since moved on. After hanging up his boots for good in 2008 following a groin issue, he's now the president of a company that delivers appliances to homes in the D.C. area.
"I'm not one to hold a grudge," Llerena told MLSsoccer.com when asked about whether he’d ever consider meeting Stoitchkov. "There are tons of other worse things in life. There are bigger problems that other people face. That puts things in perspective."
Now at age 48 and with a head full of gray hair to prove it, a seemingly more level-headed Stoitchkov could be in a state-of-mind to entertain such an idea.
"I always liked to be straightforward with people and show face because, a lot of times, we make mistakes,” the Bulgarian said of his approach on life. “When you see it's not right, you have to grit your teeth and know how to apologize.
"That's happened to me a lot of times: after I regretted it and I bowed my head and asked for forgiveness directly to the person affected. I always give my face and never hide.”
Where He Is Now
"I don't miss it," Stoitchkov says of his decision to retire following the 2003 season. "The day that I decided to hang up my boots, I didn't tell my wife or my kids. I said nothing to anyone. I woke up in the morning, I kissed my boots and I said, 'That's it.' …
"He left a real impression. He was a professional. He was hungry. He was fiery and compassionate. He had a lot of different qualities and traits to him.
"You think of him in a soccer sense, and he was always this fiery persona and almost unapproachable. But when he was our teammate, he was fantastic and I got along with him well, as did most of our team.
"A very hungry player when he was on the field. And he taught me things about playing, being a forward, being a supplier. I thoroughly enjoyed it. He brought quality to training and games. And for us in Chicago, he was a real difference-maker."
– Josh Wolff, former Fire teammate
“You have to understand the right moment when you have to leave the game. I noticed things weren't going well with my body. The heart wanted to, but the body couldn't."
After disappearing from the American soccer landscape, Stoitchkov reappeared out of the blue just a few weeks ago, bringing his outspoken personality as an analyst on the recently launched Univision Deportes Network in Miami. (Check him out on the broacast here.) He's even joined the Twitterverse as part of the gig at @Hristo8Official.
He wants to be himself – not one of the "charlatans," as he deems them, in the media business who "talk just to talk."
"I'm very direct and a lot of people love me for that and others don't love me for it," he said. "But the ones that don't love it, don't pay for my telephone bill or for my kids' school."
But one day, Stoitchkov wouldn't mind that the weekly paycheck came from coaching in MLS. He says he has a real itch to coach in the league and he hopes to see that desire materialize in the future.
"I'd love to, without a doubt," he said. "To become a coach in MLS, I would be happy like a kid … Because knowing MLS and knowing how it all works here, it'd be a lot easier."
Stoitchkov is now a pundit with Univision Deportes and has a warning for viewers: "I'm very direct and a lot of people love me for that and others don't love me for it. But the ones that don't love it don't pay for my telephone and for my kids' school."
(Courtesy of Univision Deportes)
The US scene is one he appreciates, especially after the coaching gigs he’s had overseas in his native Bulgaria (the national team, Litex Lovech and CSKA Sofia) and South Africa (Mamelodi Sundowns). He saw some things he didn't like, which prompted his latest move to broadcasting: match-fixing.
"I don't like dirty business,” Stoitchkov said. “This hurts me to my soul, truthfully. To sell oneself, to lose a game, to put your private life ahead [of the game] or to put your team [ahead of the game]. Matches and referees putting themselves in the middle. That all hurts my soul.
“Me in my life, I played in the greatest team of Barcelona's history and I've never seen anything like this. I see that in this world – it's not for me. I can't just wait around for someone to make a mockery of the work of kids. That someone wants us to lose a game so the next year we'll get six points so the team moves forward. ... I can't support this."
It's that sharp tongue that hasn’t lost its edge with age and continues to make Stoitchkov the intriguing, engaging personality he is and one that Univision will hope translates to the US market.
The only problem? The outfit.
"Every day in a suit and tie feels strange to me," he said. "When I played, I only shaved every Sunday … when people came to visit me and I had to make sure I looked good.”