Player Hurt in United Scrimmage in '03 Seeks Damages

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A former American University soccer player whose leg was broken during a scrimmage against D.C. United in 2003 is suing the team, its former investors, MLS and Hristo Stoitchkov, the Bulgarian superstar whose tackle caused the injury.

Freddy Llerena, of Germantown, is seeking $5 million in compensatory damages from all parties and $5 million in punitive damages from Stoitchkov. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington last year, is in the pre-trial process.

Llerena alleges that Stoitchkov's tackle, which left him with a compound fracture of his right leg and other injuries, was the result of negligence and reckless misconduct.

The lawsuit claims that Llerena, a freshman at the time who returned to play for AU before leaving the team his senior year, suffered physical and psychological injuries, including a leg disability; incurred considerable medical expenses; and has been unable to play at his "pre-accident level."

United, MLS and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which until recently operated the D.C. club, were included on the negligence and reckless misconduct counts because they employed Stoitchkov. (MLS owns all player contracts.) The lawsuit also alleges the team and league were negligent in hiring and supervising Stoitchkov, who was disciplined numerous times during his illustrious career.

Stoitchkov -- the European player of the year in 1994 after leading Bulgaria to the World Cup semifinals -- was a player and assistant coach for United for one season before retiring. Now, 41, he is coaching the Bulgarian national team.

Llerena's attorney, Roger Johnson, declined to comment on pending litigation and said Llerena, 22, did not want to discuss the case. Brian Casto, a Baltimore-based attorney for the defendants, did not return telephone and e-mail messages.

Will Kuhns and Doug Hicks, spokesmen for MLS and United, respectively, said, as company policy, they would not comment on litigation.

The incident occurred about 10 minutes into a scrimmage at AU's Reeves Field in March 2003, during the Eagles' offseason and a few weeks before United's season opener. Llerena was preparing to take possession of the ball at midfield when Stoitchkov approached on the run and, in an apparent attempt to disrupt play, slammed his left foot into Llerena's right leg, which, according to the lawsuit, was planted on the field. Stoitchkov -- who, according to the lawsuit, was angry that game officials did not disallow an AU goal moments before the tackle on Llerena -- was assessed a red card. Both coaches agreed to suspend the game. Llerena was removed by ambulance and, later that day, had a four-inch metal plate inserted in his leg.

In postgame media interviews, AU Coach Todd West called Stoitchkov's challenge "criminal." Stoitchkov apologized publicly and said: "It's an incident that occurs in soccer. It was a 50-50 ball." Ray Hudson, who coached United at the time, called it a "rash tackle."

Following an investigation by MLS, Stoitchkov was suspended two games and fined $2,000. No criminal charges were filed.

Llerena, who starred at Northwest High School before enrolling at AU in 2002, returned to play in eight games in 2003 and in 20 in '04, but left the team during his senior year after making one appearance. "He told me: 'I'm just not the same guy. I can't do what I used to do,' " West said this week. "He couldn't move very well anymore."

In court documents, the defendants contend that Llerena assumed the risk by participating in the game.

Duke University professor Paul Haagen, a sports law expert, said in an interview that cases involving injury during athletic competition are difficult to win. "What this will turn on is expectations -- the expectations of the participants, what the game was about and whether it went beyond those level of expectations," he said. "Did the incident go beyond the normal course of the game?"

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