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American University freshman has leg broken by vicious Stoitchkov tackle; scrimmage is scrubbed.

Hristo Stoitchkov
Hristo Stoitchkov was in tears after his reckless tackle caused a compound fracture of the right tibia and fibula of American University freshman Freddy Llerena.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, March 25, 2003) -- What was to be a friendly scrimmage between D.C. United and American University turned ugly this morning.

Apparently upset over the lack of an offside call that allowed American to score, United striker Hristo Stoitchkov immediately went after an AU freshman with a vicious tackle that crushed the right leg of midfielder Freddy Llerena.

After being attended by paramedics, Llerena, 19, was taken to Montgomery General Hospital in Olney, Md., where he underwent surgery to repair a broken tibia and fibula. Stoitchkov was issued a red card and the game was terminated after only 9:25 had elapsed.

AU coach Todd West called Stoitchkov's tackle "criminal." One of the parmedics said, "It looks like the kid has been hit by a car."

Llerena, who is 5-foot-7 and weighs about 150 pounds, underwent approximately one hour of surgery by Dr. David Higgins for a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula. A four-inch metal plate was inserted to stabilize the tibia until it is removed around Christmas. The best-case scenario would have Llerena able to play again in six-to-eight weeks.

Freddy Llerena
AU midfielder Freddy Llerena was rushed to hospital for injuries suffered when he was tackled by Hristo Stoitchkov.

Llerena played in 12 games, starting one and recording one goal and one assist for the Eagles who went 13-8-1 and advanced to the second round of the 2002 NCAA tournament. "Surgery seemingly went well and we're looking forward to getting Freddy back in the starting lineup in the fall," West said.

United has maintained cordial relations with several area colleges in recent years, sometimes using their facilities to practice and scrimmaging such schools as AU, Maryland and George Washington. However, there was nothing amiable about the manner in which United players approached this meeting which was officiated by professionals.

Shortly before Stoitchkov's transgression, defender Mike Petke was issued a yellow card for a "professional" foul.

"Petke is a hard player. He lost the ball and, if he had not taken out the player, we would have been through," West said. "It was a professional foul, one you can understand. Stoitchkov's wasn't professional, it was criminal. . . You just don't expect a mature, professional player to do something like that. If he were some inexperienced kid it would be one thing, but he's been around too long at the highest levels."

Defender Ryan Nelsen gave United a 1-0 lead, heading home a curling Marco Ethcheverry corner kick from six yards in the sixth minute, but the Eagles responded with a neat counter-attack three minnutes later. Andrew Herman led a two-on-one break, smartly dishing left to fellow sophomore forward Peter Phillipakos who beat D.C. United goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the lower left corner to even matters at 1-1.

Todd West
AU coach Todd West called Hristo Stoitchkov's foul "criminal."

Stoitchkov was incensed and berated the linesman who he accused of missing an obvious offside call. Off the restart, Llerena was first to a loose ball and as he tried to settle it, Stoitchkov, who goes 5-9 and 181 pounds, took a run at the youngster, flying in with a two-legged tackle, breaking his leg with a loud snap, audible for some distance.

As Llerena screamed in pain, Stoitchkov, tears streaming down his face, hovered over the fallen player as he was treated for about 30 minutes before being taken to the hospital. Stoitchkov then sat on the United bench, his face buried in his hands.

"It was a very, very rash tackle," said visibly distraught United coach Ray Hudson. "Obviously there is no excuse for it in any way. I just don't know what (Stoitchkov) was thinking. There's just no way we can say to the young man, or to his teammates, or the university, how sorry we are. It's just devastating for all of us."

Stoitchkov, 36, is a sublimely talented player, one who was named the world's best player in 1994 after leading Bulgaria to fourth place in that year's World Cup in the United States. But, over the years, Stoitchkov has had difficulty holding his emotions in check, and is remembered for being involved in unpleasant incidents, not only with opposing players, but game officials.

When he was young, Stoitchhkov was issued a lifetime ban after a brawl during the Bulgarian Cup final, but the sanction was later lifted. In seven years with Spanish power Barcelona, he earned a record 11 red cards and once stomped on a referee's foot.

"I'm deeply sorry for what happened," Stoitchkov told the United web site. "It's an incident that occurs in soccer. It was a 50-50 ball. I have never done anything like this to an opponent before in my career. My heart goes out to the kid, his family and his teammates. I hope he recovers fully and is able to play soccer again."

United made no immediate announcement of disciplinary action, turning the matter over to the Major League Soccer office.

At least one AU official suggested a law suit might follow.

"I just don't know what to say," United midfielder Ben Olsen said. "It's really disheartening. We all feel so terrible. That's the worst injury I have ever seen."

SoccerTimes managing editor Gary Davidson contributed to this report.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent and can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com.

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