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For Eskandarians, A Father-Son Game

The father knows much about such things. An Armenian descendant who grew up in Tehran, he played in the 1978 World Cup for Iran before playing for the Cosmos from 1979 through 1984. He was too late to have been a teammate of Pele, who retired from the Cosmos in 1977, but the roster still glittered with such international stars as Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and scoring machine Giorgio Chinaglia.

Now 53, Eskandarian still plays three times a week -- for an over-40 team and an over-35 team. He weighs only five pounds more than his 155 with the Cosmos, and thus was in top condition when Alecko was growing up and trying to score goals against him.

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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"As early as when he was 4 years old, he would look at the highlight tape of all those goals by Giorgio Chinaglia [pronounced Canal-e-ah]," his father said. "He would put the tape in and he couldn't even sit down and watch, he would walk and watch it, because he was boiling inside to do it. So he would take me in the backyard and he would put me in the goal and he would start shooting. He grew like that."

"That's all I ever thought about, scoring goals," the younger Eskandarian said after a practice this week at RFK, before D.C. United flew to California for the title game. "I think it's my personality."

His brother Ara, three years older, who played soccer at Villanova and now is an accountant in New York, "was shy, kind of. He didn't want the spotlight. He was a defender, like my father. But with me, I wanted a lot of attention, all eyes on me. I always wanted to be scoring goals."

He almost always has: 154 goals in four years at Bergen Catholic High and 50 in three seasons at the University of Virginia. After a discouraging rookie year with D.C. United when former coach Ray Hudson played him only sporadically, he scored a team-high 10 goals this season, and has added two more in the playoffs. Peter Nowak, the rookie coach who rescued Eskandarian from the bench, described him as one of a few young players on D.C. United with exceptional potential, "all guys still under their mothers' wings, so to speak," a group that includes 15-year-old Freddy Adu.

"Eski can score goals when he's in good spots, and when he gets a look at the goal he's deadly," Kevin Payne, United's president, said. "What gets much harder at this level compared with college is getting in those spots and getting those looks at the goal. When he came into the league, he didn't really understand how hard he had to work off the ball to give himself those opportunities. At the same time, there wasn't any consistency to his playing time. So he was confused. There wasn't as much coaching done with him, I don't believe. This year, Peter . . . was going to see to it that Eski was one of guys who was going to be vitally important because Peter was convinced that he could do it.

"Right now," Payne added, "I would put his work rate up against any forward in the world. And he's just going to get better and better."

A Family Game

Eskandarian's career almost was inevitable, growing up as he did in a household where the sport was roughly the equivalent of breathing.

When he had barely begun to walk, he chased after a soccer ball and kicked it rather than trying to pick it up. While that was hardly unique, his father recalled Alecko persisting in kicking a ball. "Look what we have here," he told his wife Anna, who also is of Armenian descent and from Iran.

"I remember always having a ball around me," Alecko said. "When I was little, there was a sponge ball I would sleep with and kick around all day long. I just loved it. And when you have an older brother, you do what he does, and he was growing up playing soccer.

"My parents would have to kick me off the backyard field because I would be out there till midnight doing my own thing if they let me. I would do it for hours and hours. You know, like little kids playing basketball, pretending to be Jordan, taking the last shot. Well, I was in the backyard pretending to be whoever and 'scoring' with only a few seconds left."

He attended an Armenian elementary school, describing himself at the time as prone to mischief. Because of his antics, he said, the school had to create detention.

His father disciplined him, though. The elder Eskandarian always coached the soccer teams his son played on -- and the father was tough.

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