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.
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."
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.
"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.
"Very tough," said Alecko, his dark eyes widening, "but in a positive way. One of the many things my parents have given me is their honesty. If I'm doing well, they'll tell me. If I'm doing bad, they'll be the first ones to tell me. I remember in high school I scored five goals in a game and we won 5-0 and my dad said, 'You played terrible today.' I was like, 'I'm sure there was someone worse than me.' He said, 'No.' "
Oh, yes, acknowledged the father, seated in his back-room office in Eski's Sports, he was a strict father-coach. But, as he told it, he believed in his son advancing "gradually" in soccer and keeping a "humble" attitude no matter how accomplished a player he became. "When he was in high school and people came to us and said, 'Send him to England to play,' or, 'Send him to Germany,' I didn't feel that way. I wanted him to stay in the family."
Anna called to her husband from out in the store. High up in one corner of the room, near the shirts and shoes and opposite an oil painting she made of him in his No. 2 Cosmos uniform, is a TV. Fox Sports World was coming on with MLS highlights, specifically the United-New England game. Even though he already had watched his own complete tape of the game, Andranik stood next to Anna, enjoying their son's exquisite goal one more time. She, too, thrives on soccer, and Alecko sometimes calls her "Coach."
"They thought he was going to cross," she said, meaning that the defenders appeared to be looking for him to pass the ball.
"Ah, but you could see it in his face," said Andranik, noting that Alecko had looked toward the goal with his eyes while not moving his head.
Moments later, she stepped toward the TV and pointed up to a player breaking free in front of the net. Sounding much like a coach, she said: "There was no defender. No one was covering."
Andranik laughed at her frustration over the play.
At length, United's players were shown celebrating the victory after penalty kicks. "That was a nice moment," she said with a smile.
Ironically, Andranik experienced a similar feeling at RFK in 1980, when the NASL held its title game there and the Cosmos won.
"So I was back there watching my son, and it was a beautiful feeling for me," he said. "After 24 years, Alecko was holding that cup there. For me, it's a blessing."
Season of Change
Eskandarian's two seasons with United could not have been more different.
In last year's opener, he suffered a concussion when he was knocked to the ground and landed headfirst. In this year's opener, he scored in a 2-1 victory over San Jose.
Last season, he wasn't given much of a chance. This season, he was slowed by hamstring problems after the opener and found himself back on the bench, fearing more frustration. But on June 19, 21/2 months into the season and with the team struggling, he was given a start based on his hard work at practice and the team's obvious need for a change. He scored two goals as United beat Columbus, 3-1.
Veteran midfielder Ben Olsen put it this way: "It's easy to say now after he's had this year, but I saw some stuff from this kid in college, the goals he scored, his size, his width, his speed, his pace, his strikes on goal, he's got the whole package. We saw it in practice a lot the year before. We knew that once this kid got hot, he was going to be okay."
At forward, he has been perfectly paired with veteran Jaime Moreno, who led the team in points (28) and the entire league in assists (14) during the regular season. "When you're on the same page, it makes everything easier," Moreno said. "That's how we've felt, that we can go at the defenders and we can score."
Eskandarian, as his father would have it, sounded grateful to be playing.
"The coaches gave me the opportunity to start against Columbus," he said. "After that, the guys on the team kind of began looking at me like, all right, you're going to be a goal scorer, we're going to count on you every game to try to make something happen. That's the role I wanted."
It will be his role today. A score of relatives who have settled in California will be in the stands rooting for him, although the dean of the family will have to watch on television at his home in nearby Glendale, his health preventing him from going to the stadium. That would be Andranik's father, Galoost. Alecko would like to win the MLS Cup for him. He is 92.