By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
D.C. United Coach Peter Nowak makes it a rule to never reveal his starters in advance, but as his struggling club prepares for its MLS playoff opener Saturday at New York, he is giving indications that striker Alecko Eskandarian will return to the lineup.
"I think he's ready to play," Nowak said yesterday following a feisty training session in the rain. "Esky brings a lot of emotions and a lot of energy to our game. This is so important in this stretch."
After missing four games with a knee injury, Eskandarian came off the bench in the last two regular season matches and played a combined 74 minutes.
Although he didn't score, Eskandarian restored a menacing presence to United's ineffective front line and, during Sunday's 3-2 loss to Chicago, tested goalkeeper Matt Pickens with a couple of booming shots.
Said Nowak, "He definitely [brought] us something special."
Asked if he is capable of contributing 60 quality minutes in a playoff setting, Eskandarian said: "I'm ready to play 90 minutes. I was kind of upset that I didn't get to start this last game and just play as much as I could until I burned out.
"I wanted to get a good game in and work on my fitness. But even the 45 minutes I was in there, I felt fine and felt like I could've gone another 45."
Despite his eagerness, Eskandarian admits to some lingering discomfort on the back of his left knee. Naturally left-footed, he said the time off actually helped him strengthen the power of his right-footed shots.
"It's been a little better than expected as far as being able to get out there and run okay," he said. "I'm not hobbling around, which is what I feared. It's just very sore afterward."
Eskandarian's return could prove critical to United's pursuit of a fifth championship. During two months of lackluster play, the club has not received as much production from its forwards as it did early in the season.
Team captain Jaime Moreno continues to be one of the best setup men in MLS, but he has scored only one goal the last 2 1/2 months. Freddy Adu had some success when moved to forward, but seems more comfortable in the midfield. He had two assists as a midfielder Sunday.
Rookie Rod Dyachenko has appeared in seven consecutive games (three of the last four as a starter up front) but has failed to convert his chances.
When give the opportunity, Eskandarian has strained to regain his scoring touch. His seventh goal came in the 20th match, July 22 at Chicago, but in 499 minutes of playing time since then, he has been blanked.
The problem goes beyond the forwards, he said.
"I feel like we're playing almost too slow sometimes, where we are just going side to side in the midfield instead of looking at our forwards' runs and slipping a through ball or even hitting a long ball," Eskandarian said.
"We're a great team in terms of combinations, but we can mix it up more. It's taking too long to get into the attack, and defenses are outnumbering us and just waiting for us."
United Note: The club denied an Israeli report that it has invited Maccabi Haifa to play a friendly at RFK Stadium next year.
United Vice President Stephen Zack said he had been approached by the Israeli Embassy about a possible game, but there were no follow-up talks and, because of several expected scheduling conflicts, "I would be surprised if we could fit in such a game."
Besides the league schedule, the U.S. Open Cup and Champions Cup, Zack mentioned the possibility of playing a tournament with Mexican clubs and a major international friendly.