RAMSEY, N.J. -- Andranik Eskandarian drove his white 2004 Cadillac Escalade through the streets of north Jersey, past Paramus, on the way to Hackensack and a sports store he owns there. He is the father of Alecko Eskandarian, the surprise leading goal scorer of D.C. United, which plays the Kansas City Wizards today in Carson, Calif., for the championship of Major League Soccer. The senior Eskandarian once was a standout defender for the New York Cosmos of the now-defunct North American Soccer League, and, growing up, Alecko used to challenge him on the backyard soccer field of the family's home in nearby Montvale.
"I always tell Alecko, 'You are playing now at a good time. I don't play anymore,' " the father said good-naturedly. He turned down a side street to avoid traffic and parked near the Main Street store originally owned and now managed by a teammate on the Cosmos, Hubert Birkenmeier, the former goalie. It was against Birkenmeier, one of the NASL's finest netminders, that the young Alecko also honed his shooting skills.
Alecko, 22, has a head for the game. "Alecko is always in the right spot to score," says Hubert Birkenmeier.
(Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
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They played inside the store.
"Alecko has a very powerful shot," Birkenmeier said. "I know. He hit it enough off of me."
"We used to break stuff," Alecko would say later. "I think we scared away some customers."
Birkenmeier favors the area MLS team, the MetroStars, but he roots hardest of all for Alecko. For years, he has kept Alecko's favorite soccer ball tucked away in the store's basement. As recently as a few weeks ago, Alecko visited the store and retrieved the ball, bouncing it on his foot for the next hour.
"Here it is," said Birkenmeier, producing a green soccer ball. "This is a football we will never sell."
He told how Alecko used to kick that ball between the rows of clothing and racks of shoes, recalling hectic encounters that might better have taken place outdoors, on a field somewhere. Now he watches Alecko on television, or in person at Giants Stadium when United plays there.
"Alecko is always in the right spot to score," Birkenmeier said proudly. "But what I liked about him so much the last game, I never saw him working so hard. He ran his butt off. You can see improvement. He has still more confidence. I guess the coaching has something to do with that, too."
He put the green ball back in the basement, treating it like a small boy's favorite toy.
A 'Calculated' Effort
Alecko Eskandarian is still growing as a soccer player. At 22, he can look forward to a future that many soccer observers foresee as blindingly bright. For now, his skills and fame are ascendant -- never more so than eight nights ago at RFK Stadium when D.C. United beat New England in MLS's Eastern Conference final. He is short, 5 feet 8, and compact, 160 pounds, with broad shoulders, and powerful legs that enable him to run fast and for as long as any game might last.
Off the laces of his left shoe after a run from midfield against the Revolution, he blasted a 22-yard shot that rose and ticked high off the inside of the far post (almost faster than the eye could see) and ricocheted into the net to start the scoring in what turned out to be one of the most exciting games in the franchise's nine-year history. It was a virtuoso shot. He had reached top speed when he leaned almost imperceptibly forward so that his head and torso were almost above the ball, enabling him to bring the force of his entire body to bear when he swung through with his kicking leg.
If beating his defender wasn't enough, he had to place the shot perfectly because the New England goalie has an extraordinary reach and a proven ability to stretch full out in an effort to make stops. But he couldn't stop Eskandarian.
"He probably had an inch to score that goal," Andranik said one day this week at his other soccer store, Eski's Sports, on Ramsey's Main Street. "I watched the tape. If it was an inch inside, the goalie would have saved it. It was that calculated a shot, an unbelievably calculated shot."