In MLS, foreign superstars typically fit one of two profiles. At
one extreme are the churlish, unproductive tourists, players like
Lothar Matthaus from Germany, who during his one disastrous U.S.
season alienated his New York/New Jersey MetroStars teammates,
milked the league for a $10,000-a-month Trump Tower apartment and
rehabbed a back injury (as paparazzi discovered) by sunbathing
with his girlfriend in St. Tropez.
The refreshing opposite is Chicago Fire forward Hristo
Stoitchkov. Seriously? The same Stoitchkov who earned a lifetime
ban in his native Bulgaria (later rescinded) for his role in a
1985 soccer brawl? Who in '90, while a star for Barcelona, was
suspended for six months after stomping on a referee's foot? Who
left his last club, Japan's Kashiwa Reysol, in the middle of his
contract two years ago? Yep, that's the one.
It's not only that the left-footed Stoitchkov, 35, was MLS's most
electrifying player last year, rekindling memories of his
glorious performance in the 1994 World Cup, in which he shared
the goal-scoring crown and led Bulgaria to the semifinals. Nor is
it merely that he treats the other Fire players with a courtier's
respect, shaking each teammate's hand before daily training and
calling his coach, Bob Bradley, "Mister." What makes Stoitchkov
the anti-Matthaus--and the primary reason Chicago is SI's pick to
win MLS Cup 2001--is his willingness to teach.
Just as Sir Edmund Hillary builds schools in Nepal, the site of
his greatest triumph, Stoitchkov shares his knowledge in the U.S.
"I will always remember this country for the 1994 World Cup,"
Stoitchkov says in Spanish. "In Bulgaria many older players
helped me when I was a teenager, so I want to teach young people.
It gives you a great friendship, a friendship that obligates you,
so I work with them every day. I'm not wrong often, and these
boys are going to play in Europe, I'm very sure of that."
Two of Stoitchkov's top students on the Fire (striker Josh Wolff,
24, and midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, 18) have started for the
U.S. team and are drawing interest from clubs in England, Holland
and Spain. It's a source of pride for their mentor, the 1994
European Player of the Year. "Hristo takes working with players
seriously," says Bradley, "and he knows every part of what it
Stoitchkov doesn't give his disciples a convoluted master plan;
he just insists they pay fanatical attention to a few sacred
details. "Soccer is simple," he says. "It's playing with one
touch, two touches, and not having so many complications. Your
movement on the field is important, and you need to have the
right mentality, fighting in every game, in every practice, for
Instruction takes many forms. Consider the case of Wolff, the
blazing game-breaker who led the U.S. to the Olympic semifinals
in Sydney. Bradley tells of the time Wolff wasn't giving full
effort in warmups for a practice. "Hristo saw him going through
the motions and whacked him with the back of his hand," Bradley
says. "He didn't say anything, but Josh understood: This is not
how a professional does things."
Stoitchkov also has shown Wolff how to create space for runs and
to open his body to midfielders, the better to signal his forays
to the goal. "Then Hristo knows how to pick you out," Wolff says,
alluding to Stoitchkov's breathtaking 60-yard pinpoint passes.
"It's all by eye contact."
With Beasley, the runner-up for the MVP at the last Under-17
World Cup, Stoitchkov has shared his intimate knowledge of the
soccer chessboard. Against Guatemala in Under-20 World Cup
qualifying last month, Beasley unspooled a low pass from the
right wing, splitting the goalkeeper and back line and allowing
the U.S.'s Bobby Convey to run onto the ball for a goal. "The
best compliment I can give DaMarcus," says Bradley, "is that it
was the same ball Hristo would have hit."
Even so, no Fire player is closer to Stoitchkov than forward Dema
Kovalenko, 23, who idolized him while growing up in Ukraine as a
ball boy for Dynamo Kiev. During World Cup '94 Kovalenko (who had
emigrated to Rochester, N.Y.) watched from the Giants Stadium
stands as Stoitchkov helped Bulgaria upset Germany 2-1 in the
quarterfinals. "Now we're on the same team," Kovalenko says,
shaking his head. "That's crazy."
So too are the inseparable pair, who room together on the road,
communicate in Russian and share a passion for fishing--from
fly-fishing in Colorado to deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic to
(as their amused teammates point out) staking out a stagnant,
hotel-side pond during spring training in Florida, just to get in
a few casts. Recently, after Stoitchkov moved with his wife and
two daughters into a house in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest
("Right near Michael Jordan's place," he says), he showed a
visitor a guest room with two beds. "That one's for Dema," he
said, "and that one's for DaMarcus."
Stoitchkov's generosity knows few bounds--and no international
boundaries. Last December he hosted four Fire coaches for 10 days
in Barcelona, giving them a behind-the-scenes look at his former
club's operations, from the first-division squad to its youth
levels. (Other highlights included a tour of a winery and lunch
with a former coach, Dutch soccer legend Johann Cruyff.) For the
next off-season, Stoitchkov hopes to match three or four Fire
teammates with Spanish clubs for extended training periods. "If
Hristo can say a couple of words on your behalf, that's great for
any young player," says Beasley, who worked out with Spain's
Tenerife last year.
Stoitchkov has especially high hopes for his frontline mate
Wolff. When Wolff scored a goal and created another in the U.S.'s
2-0 defeat of Mexico in February, Stoitchkov rose from his Lake
Forest couch and screamed with joy. "It made me very happy," he
says. "I've always liked playing with fast forwards, guys like
Romario, Rivaldo, [Michael] Laudrup, [Luis] Figo. They have the
combination of being fast and smart at timing their runs, and
Josh has this quality as well. Let's hope we can play together
every game this season."
Durability is Stoitchkov's main concern these days. Though a
sprained left ankle kept him out of Chicago's season-opening 1-1
tie at Columbus last Saturday, he expects to return in a week or
two. In the meantime he's learning nearly as much as he's
teaching. While riding an exercise bike in the Fire locker room
last week, Stoitchkov called out in English, "Chicago Bulls?
Nothing. Chicago Bears? Nothing. Chicago Blackhawks? Nothing."
He smiled. "Chicago Fire? The best."
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Look for Hernandez (right) to kick-start the Galaxy attack.
It's the best rivalry in MLS: Fire versus MetroStars, which last
year involved a bench-clearing brawl, a general manager (the
Metros' Nick Sakiewicz) secretly vowing to pay his players'
yellow-card fines (a league investigation cleared Sakiewicz)
and--oh, yes--some top-notch soccer. So circle the dates on which
they'll meet: June 30, Sept. 1 and (SI predicts) Oct. 21 in MLS
1. CHICAGO FIRE
Loads of firepower both young (Josh Wolff, DaMarcus Beasley, Dema
Kovalenko) and old (Hristo Stoitchkov, Peter Nowak) will carry
the Fire to the title. Its only weakness may be in the back,
where sweeper Lubos Kubik, who was traded to the Burn, will be
2. NEW YORK/NEW JERSEY METROSTARS
Midfielder Clint Mathis, who had 16 goals and 14 assists in 2000,
is ready for stardom, but can he keep his temper in check? The
same can be asked of the entire back line of this intimidating
(but chippy) team. Adolfo Valencia (16 goals) will be the most
productive of the Metros' three Colombians.
3. MIAMI FUSION
Coach Ray Hudson benefits from the league's biggest upgrade, the
Fusion having added defender Carlos Llamosa and midfielders Chris
Henderson and Preki, all former MLS Cup winners. If dive-happy
striker Diego Serna (16 goals last season) keeps his feet, look
4. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
With its sights trained on a date with Real Madrid during
August's World Club Championship, the Galaxy might let a few
games slide. Expect striker Luis Hernandez to earn his
league-maximum salary when he leaves Mexico in late May to play
full-time in MLS.
5. DALLAS BURN
Ariel Graziani and Jason Kreis are still one of the best up-front
duos in MLS, and new sweeper Lubos Kubik will be dangerous moving
forward. If 18-year-old Bolivian midfield prospect Joselito Vaca
matures quickly, the Burn will be fun to watch.
6. KANSAS CITY WIZARDS
Goalkeeper Tony Meola, the league's MVP last season, and the rest
of a solid defense will help the reigning MLS champs win a lot of
low-scoring games. New striker Roy Lassiter needs a first-class
playmaker to be effective, though, and that's missing here.
7. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Striker Landon Donovan, only 19 and on long-term loan from
Germany's Bayer Leverkusen, will finally get his wish, a starting
job. With Jeff Agoos now anchoring the defense, watch E-Quakes
fans get their wish, a trip to the postseason.
8. D.C. UNITED
Once-proud United may be rebuilding, but any team with the
explosiveness of 17-year-old midfielder Bobby Convey, the
steadiness of defender Eddie Pope and the intuition of Bolivian
attackers Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry should make the
9. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Despite coach Fernando Clavijo's best intentions, the chemistry
isn't there between the staid Americans (John Harkes, Eric
Wynalda) and the go-my-own-way internationals (Leonel Alvarez,
10. TAMPA BAY MUTINY
Age will finally catch up with playmaker Carlos Valderrama, 39,
and the league will start figuring out volatile striker Mamadou
Diallo (an MLS-leading 26 goals in 2000).
11. COLUMBUS CREW
Though the Crew has capable attackers in Dante Washington, Brian
McBride and Jeff Cunningham, it has no one to serve them. Much
will depend on the return of injury-plagued midfielder Brian
12. COLORADO RAPIDS
Defenders Marcelo Balboa and Robin Fraser will keep games close,
but building an offense around newcomers Neathan Gibson and John
Spencer is a gamble.
What makes Chicago SI's pick to win MLS Cup 2001 is Stoitchkov's
willingness to teach.