With time about to expire in the first half of D.C. United's match against Columbus last weekend, Alecko Eskandarian and Jaime Moreno hovered over the ball a few yards outside the penalty area. Moreno is a nine-year MLS veteran and the club's attacking leader, Eskandarian a second-year forward still learning how to be a pro.
But the location of the ball favored a left-footed player such as Eskandarian, who just a few minutes earlier had scored a tremendous long-range goal in the run of play.
"I knew Jaime loves taking free kicks and obviously he's older and I have a lot of respect for him," Eskandarian recounted this week. "I was kind of hoping he would let me take it. Fortunately, we walked up to it, he was like, 'You take this.' Once he said that, it really gave me a boost of confidence to know that he believed in me to hit it. . . . It worked out perfectly."
With teammate Dema Kovalenko standing in front of the ball to screen Crew goalkeeper Jon Busch and Moreno acting as a decoy, Eskandarian approached, and just as Kovalenko stepped aside, he smashed a 22-yard shot that streaked over the defensive wall and bent into the upper right corner of the net to give United a 3-0 halftime lead.
It was the pinnacle of Eskandarian's two-goal evening and thrust him back into the spotlight for the first time since the season opener 11 weeks earlier, when he scored his only other goal of the year. In between, he battled a hamstring injury that has hampered him since preseason, ineffective finishing and having to take a secondary role as 15-year-old Freddy Adu earned more playing time.
Eskandarian, a former University of Virginia star, is almost certain to start his second consecutive match today, when United (4-5-4) faces the Dallas Burn (4-4-3) at the Cotton Bowl.
Eskandarian's scoring touch has become increasingly vital to United's fortunes following the release of veteran forward Ronald Cerritos on Monday and long-term injuries to several attacking players.
Although the club is in search of an experienced striker from South America to fill Cerritos's roster spot, Eskandarian is very much in Coach Peter Nowak's plans.
"I was happy for him, of course, especially after his injury," Nowak said. "We trust in him that when he's out on the field he's going to give everything. Of course, the goals were nice and added to what he brings to the table. He chased the defenders and held the ball very well. That's what we're looking for."
Eskandarian was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 MLS draft, and although he played in 23 of 30 matches, he started five and averaged just 32 minutes per appearance. He finished with three goals, two of which came in a six-minute span against Columbus in midseason.
"Last year, coming in as a rookie, just the whole situation, I never really felt part of the team," he said. "All of the rookies just got that sense because no one really ever helped us out. But this year, playing with the [U.S. under-23 national team] and doing pretty well with them and getting my first call-up to the full [national] team, it really helped to build my confidence to know that I can come in and do things I know I'm capable of doing. Last year, I was just trying to be simple and cater to other people's needs."
Eskandarian started the 2004 opener against defending champion San Jose and scored a superb goal in the first half. He was also the player Adu replaced 15 minutes into the second half for his long-awaited MLS debut.
After three uneventful starts, Eskandarian played as a reserve for a trio of games, then returned to the lineup for one match, headed back to the bench for two more, then sat out two games with the sore hamstring.
When he was healthy again, Nowak gave him another shot last week. Eskandarian's first goal came on a running volley from the top corner of the penalty area to the far side-netting following nifty combination work with Moreno and Kovalenko.
It was voted the MLS goal of the week and Eskandarian was named the league's player of the week.
"It was really hard," he said of the shot. "I could practice shots like that all day and I'll only hit a few."
His second strike sent United on its way to a badly needed 3-1 victory.
Asked if last week's performance was the start of something big, he said: "We'll see. Obviously, it was my first game back. I'm very happy with the way things went, but I've got to improve every week."