Connolly: Eskandarian takes chances
that's it -- as Eskandarian danced to his left with the ball towards the 18-yard box. Just when it looked like he might go in for a tackle and start a counterattack for a side that was trying to tie the game up, the D.C. United striker quickly fired a well-placed shot that found the inside of the post to take a commanding 2-0 lead in both the game and the aggregate goals series.
It was a play that showed Eskandarian at his finest, making something out of nothing with the same determined edge he's shown throughout his second year in Major League Soccer.
"It was the first time all game I had a defender one-on-one, so my eyes lit up," said the 22-year-old from Montvale, N.J. "Ben Olsen told me after the game that he knew I was going to take that shot no matter how many other people were open or how many people I had in front of me."
It's called confidence. That's the look that Eskandarian showed, and the one that Olsen read correctly. It's the type of belief in your ability that comes from posting 10 goals during the regular season after you've finally won a starting role with your club. And it's exactly what he didn't have one year ago when Ray Hudson not only failed to play him in the two playoff losses to Chicago but didn't even have him on the substitutes bench.
"I can't even begin to explain how different it is now from last year," said Eskandarian during a phone interview on Tuesday evening. "As hard as I worked and as much as I respected my teammates, I felt I never really got a fair chance. And it killed me, to be honest with you."
After being drafted as the first overall selection in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft, Eskandarian found himself fighting for playing time from Day One. While he ended up seeing the field in 23 of 30 matches, it was for a scant 728 minutes with only five starts mixed in. By the end of the season, he was hardly even in the picture, getting just 11 minutes during the month of October.
"Ray would keep telling me that I was doing well, but then I wouldn't play," he said. "I just didn't get it."
Less than a year out of the University of Virginia, where he was an All-American and voted the nation's top player as a junior, Eskandarian burned up his cell phone minutes talking to friends and former teammates in Charlottesville. There were lots of long talks with his father, Andranik, who played for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League during the '70s. His friends and family told him to keep working hard. They tried to lift his spirits reminding him that he had a possibility of playing in the Olympics the next summer with the U.S. under-23 national team.
While the Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley-led U-23s never ended up qualifying for the Olympics last winter, Eskandarian's world changed for the better when Peter Nowak came was hired in the offseason to replace Hudson. He knew right away that it'd be different with the no-nonsense former Polish national team captain in charge.
"To be honest, he reminded me of my dad right away," said Eskandarian. "My dad was the same way and said the same things while I was growing up. It was all about hard work. And that's what Peter stressed from the beginning. It gave me a good sense that if I went in and worked hard and played to the best of my abilities that he'd give me a chance."
Nowak was a breath of fresh air for many players on D.C. United. While Hudson is very likeable and a player's coach in many ways, his lineups and locker room speeches baffled the team at times. With Nowak, it'd be all about finding the best 11 players each week no matter how old they were or what salary they were making. In a sense, that was and is true.
But the D.C. United manager also happened to have the league's biggest name and one of the world's best teenage prospects in Freddy Adu, who was still 14 years old when the season began. He needed minutes, as everyone knew. Yet, it just so happened that Eskandarian was perhaps the main player who had to sacrifice playing time for the development of his young teammate.
For the first month of the season, Eskandarian started up top, but was usually the first player subbed off for Adu. Even after he would score a goal, which was exactly what happened in the season opener against San Jose. Then, once the calendar turned to May, it was the other way around. "Esky," as he's known by his friends and teammates, was coming off the bench as Freddy's substitute.
"I thought, 'Oh no, it's happening all over again,'" said Eskandarian. "It almost became a repeat of last year. It weighed heavily on me."
He tried to bite his lip and not convey his disappointment to the media. And he wanted to be supportive of Adu. Fortunately, his roommate at the time was goalkeeper Doug Warren, who is now playing for the New England Revolution. As a backup 'keeper for all but four games in his rookie season, Warren knew what it was like, and was a settling influence on his U-23 teammate.
"I could pour out all of my frustration onto him," he said. "Doug was a huge help for me during that time."
That all started to change at the end of June when Nowak inserted Eskandarian back into the starting lineup for a match against the Columbus Crew. In a true breakout performance, the 5-foot-9 striker scored on a left-footed volley and an Etcheverry-ian free kick that bent around a wall and into the right corner all within a 12-minute span to lift D.C. to a win against Columbus 3-1. Only one game later, he earned another start, but this time next to Moreno in a 1-1 draw with Dallas in which Eskandarian scored another goal. It was the start of a partnership that has been as lethal as any one duo in MLS this season.
"It's an unspoken thing," said Eskandarian about the way he and Moreno have combined as a duo during the second half of this season. "There's a right way to play soccer and there's a wrong way. The right way is to play as a team, to be in the right positions, where everyone is doing their jobs. That, right there, is the main difference from this year and last year. I really could care less about who scores the goal, whether it's me, Jaime or even Ryan Nelsen. Jaime is the same way.
"Once we've all gone by the mindset and got to know each other, it has clicked."
To go with Eskandarian's 10 goals and two assists, Moreno is an MVP candidate after scoring seven goals and leading the league in assists with 14. And now the MetroStars must not only score at least two goals, but also keep this duo off the scoresheet to have any type of realistic shot of beating United in front of its home crowd at RFK Stadium on Saturday.
"While I think my goal was a big goal for us, it was for that first game," said Eskandarian. "We still have a whole 90 minutes of soccer we have to play, so we're not going to treat this one any differently than we did going into last weekend's game. We're very happy with the result from the first game, but we're only halfway done. I do like our chances, though, because I'm very confident in all the guys.
"We'll come out and work hard, I know that."
And if Eskandarian sees any sort of daylight and gets into another 1-v-1 situation, you know where he's going.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs