American University soccer player Freddy Llerena recalls that Tuesday's scrimmage against D.C. United was just starting to get exciting. Only 10 minutes had gone by and already each team had scored. The thrill of facing a professional team and trying to defy players of international stature wasn't lost on Llerena and his teammates.
But in an instant, the mood at AU's Reeves Field took a terrible turn. As he attempted to control the ball near midfield, Llerena was taken down by United forward Hristo Stoitchkov.
"I was just waiting for the ball and the next second, I was on the ground in pain," Llerena said yesterday in his first public comments since the incident. "I looked over my shoulder and saw [Stoitchkov] coming, but I thought he was pretty far from me. He got there pretty quickly. After that, I don't remember too much, except that my leg was broken."
Stoitchkov's left-footed tackle shattered Llerena's right tibia and fibula, compound fractures that left the 18-year-old freshman midfielder from Germantown screaming. He was taken by ambulance to Sibley Hospital, then to Montgomery General in Olney for a one-hour surgery in which a metal plate was inserted into his leg to reconnect the tibia.
He was released from the hospital late Wednesday and returned to the Northwest Washington campus on crutches, eager to resume classes Monday and begin rehabilitation. Asked when he thought he'd play again, Llerena said without trepidation, "Expect me back in the fall."
School officials are being a little more cautious, but Eagles Coach Todd West added: "I could never doubt him. He's passionate for the game, he's a student of the game, he loves the game. I wouldn't be surprised to see him start on August 20," a preseason game against UMBC.
Llerena, who moved with his family from Ecuador when he was 11, received an apologetic phone call from Stoitchkov the night of the incident, but yesterday declined to discuss if he's ready to forgive the legendary player from Bulgaria who joined United this past offseason to be a player and assistant coach.
West, however, remains angered by the foul, which resulted in a red card and ejection for Stoitchkov. He said he has watched videotape of the play about a dozen times, and "I was hoping it would make things make more sense, but it hasn't for me. I don't know what could be going on in someone's brain. . . . I think [Stoitchkov] is sorry for what happened. He didn't intend to break a leg, but I think he wanted a piece of someone, and it happened to be Freddy."
West, a part-time United assistant under former coach Thomas Rongen two years ago, also was troubled by Stoitchkov's reaction after the play. "He just brushed by one of our trainers and walked away. He didn't come back to the scene until he was told how serious it was."
After the incident, a tearful Stoitchkov, 37, said through a club spokesman that he didn't intend to hurt Llerena.
Yesterday United officials said they didn't want to respond to West's latest comments.
Meantime, Major League Soccer's disciplinary committee is reviewing the videotape, a referee's report and statements from witnesses, and could announce their findings in the next few days. A fine and suspension is possible.
United issued a general statement, saying the club is "utilizing [the MLS] process to ensure proper review of the incident. . . . D.C. United is taking this matter very seriously."
Stoitchkov will not play in Saturday's exhibition against the minor league Charleston (S.C.) Battery.