WASHINGTON - Having scored only three goals in their last four matches, the once-fearsome D.C. United attack has fallen on hard times of late. Sputtering inconsistency and the mysterious disappearance of Alecko Eskandarian, last season's leading scorer, have made life difficult for head coach Peter Nowak.
But Nowak, a renowned disciplinarian, is actually urging his team to "relax" as they enter a decisive phase of the season, with three conference games in seven days.
"Basically my point to the guys up front, and to the whole team, is that we're thinking too much about that," he said of the squad's scoring drought. "We don't make a decision when in other cases there was an automatic decision. We don't take shots, we don't take risks, and sometimes we think, 'maybe another touch, maybe another cross.'
"Without shots we're not going to put the ball in. In front of the goal it's always like, 'What am I going to do next?' Just place the shot and put the ball wherever you need. There are too many thoughts going through our players' heads right now."
That hesitancy was on display from the outset of last week's goalless draw in San Jose, where United gashed open the Earthquakes defense on multiple occasions but failed to finish their chances.
"Thirty seconds into the game, Jaime (Moreno) had a chance against the goalie, Onstad, and normally he's going to do it," said Nowak, "but (he's thinking), 'Should I dribble him, should I go for a penalty, should I ... ?' Too many questions going through the mind. We have to relax, and we worked on that in practice."
"I think that's the way soccer goes," said winger Josh Gros. "Sometimes you can't score and sometimes you can't stop scoring. We're up and down with that right now, and we're trying to get more consistent."
Eskandarian has epitomized his team's offensive struggles. The third-year striker was a revelation in last year's MLS Cup run, notching 10 goals in the regular season and four during the Black-and-Red's playoff campaign. But this season he has failed to find the net entirely, with one assist during D.C.'s last win - three weeks ago against Kansas City - providing his only points thus far.
Nowak kept the hard-working attacker in the first 11 as Eskandarian struggled to shake off a string of nagging injuries early in the season. But the United boss changed course against the 'Quakes, sending Eskandarian to the bench in place of Santino Quaranta. Now the University of Virginia product finds himself back at square one.
"It definitely hurts your confidence," he said. "I've got to get back to the nitty-gritty and start from scratch and try to work my way back up. Obviously I wish it didn't happen, but coaches make the lineups and players live with them. That's just how it goes."
Determined to break out of his slump, Eskandarian has been working out twice a day, doing conditioning work on his own in addition to the team's morning training sessions, which several players said have been even more rigorous than normal.
His efforts take on special meaning this week, as United travels north to take on Atlantic Cup rivals MetroStars at Giants Stadium, where his father Andranik Eskandarian once plied his trade for the legendary New York Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League. Alecko's childhood home stands not far from the Meadowlands complex, and he's hoping to make a splash on his return.
"It's always a special feeling to go back home and play where my dad used to play, where I grew up playing soccer," he said. "I've got a bunch of friends and family that will be there, and hopefully I can work my way back into the starting lineup, because I'll definitely be excited to play there.
"Hopefully I can catch a break, put one in and get my confidence back and hope that the guys will trust in me and the coach will trust in me. That's the main thing. Until then I've got to keep plugging away."
The same goes for his goal-shy teammates.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.