Hristo Stoitchkov has yet to play a game for D.C. United, but the Bulgarian legend has already been credited with a crucial assist: helping the club acquire countryman Galin Ivanov.
Both players were formally introduced at a news conference at RFK Stadium yesterday, Stoitchkov having been picked up in a trade with the Chicago Fire on Monday and Ivanov having signed with Major League Soccer also on Monday.
But Ivanov is here because Stoitchkov is here.
Several weeks ago, United officials were given permission by the Fire to speak to Stoitchkov about Bulgarian prospects. With a tentative deal set for Stoitchkov to be traded to United, he was eager to help. United wanted to know about a different defender; Stoitchkov recommended Ivanov.
"There are not many Bulgarians you can turn to for advice about players there," Coach Ray Hudson said with a chuckle. "It made sense to talk to Hristo and it all worked out."
Stoitchkov, who will be a reserve forward and assistant coach for United, was Ivanov's teammate in 1998 at CSKA Sofia, Bulgaria's top club, and knew of Ivanov's growing reputation as one of their country's top defenders. As United began to pursue Ivanov, Stoitchkov's advice became vital because the insight of Hudson and technical director Dave Kasper was limited to three or four videotapes.
Ivanov, 27, will start in central defense, filling the gap left by U.S. World Cup player Eddie Pope, who was traded to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars last month.
"Galin is the hairy-chested Bulgarian I've always wanted," Hudson said. "We're extremely excited about his potential to be probably the most indomitable defender this league has seen. He's technically very gifted, a lovely, sweet footballer. . . . He's going to be a great inspiration in the back. The language thing won't be a problem [Ivanov doesn't speak English] because he talks with his feet."
The 6-foot, 172-pound Ivanov played six seasons for CSKA Sofia, which last fall won all 13 league matches while allowing only five goals. He has made five appearances for Bulgaria's national team after representing the country at the under-18 and under-21 levels.
Stoitchkov said of Ivanov: "He has a winning mentality. He takes charge of the defense. He works well with his teammates and plays hard all the time."
As for himself, Stoitchkov, who will turn 37 next month, said he hopes to make an immediate impact on and off the field. "First, I'm here as a player," he said. "After that, I am an assistant coach. I don't mind sharing those duties because my life is football."
Hudson was more direct about Stoitchkov's role, saying: "Make no mistake about it, he's not coming here for a swan song; he's coming here to help us win a championship. He'll be pushing for a place on the field. There will be no automatic starters this year."
United Notes: The club will open training camp Saturday morning at the RFK Stadium auxiliary field. . . . Former MLS goalie Garth Lagerwey has talked with the team about becoming the goalkeeper coach, but no decision has been reached. . . . Single-game tickets, priced between $16 and $36, go on sale Saturday.