Alecko Eskandarian heard the rumblings.
People said he was overhyped after scoring just three goals in his rookie season for D.C. United in 2003. They said he might never live up to the expectations that made him a college superstar and the top overall selection in the SuperDraft that year. They called it the curse of the No. 1 pick.
Then Peter Nowak was hired as United’s new head coach in 2004, and everything changed.
Eskandarian earned more playing time in Nowak’s first year in charge at DC, and the young forward responded with 10 goals, a spot on the all-star team and the MLS Cup MVP award as United captured the league title.
“When Peter came into DC, it was a breath of fresh air for me,” Eskandarian told MLSsoccer.com. “He demanded a lot but he showed belief in me. He really got the most out of me.”
The Philadelphia Union hope the two’s relationship will have just as much synergy now that Eskandarian is the newest member of the Union’s staff. The former MLS all-star was hired by Nowak’s squad recently as the club’s youth technical director.
The move also reunites Eskandarian with Josh Gros, Philly’s team coordinator and another member of D.C. United’s 2004 championship squad.
“Chemistry is extremely important to any championship team,” said Eskandarian, noting that Nowak’s personality reminds him of his father Andranik, who played for the New York Cosmos. “With Peter, he knows Josh and I are both loyal to him, just as he’s been loyal to us. Anyone will tell you to win a championship, it really is a team effort, from top to bottom.”
Eskandarian is certainly thrilled to be striving for a championship with an organization he calls “first-class.” One of his primary responsibilities as youth director, he said, will be overseeing the Union’s U-16 and U-18 academy teams and providing a bridge to the first team for the top players in the system. Already, he’s been shuttling back and forth from PPL Park to the academy facilities at YSC Sports, and enjoying every minute of it.
Still, if he had his druthers, Eskandarian would not be coaching at all. Much like his good friend Gros — as well as Union broadcaster Taylor Twellman — Eskandarian had to cut short his playing career earlier than he would have liked because of concussion problems. The 28-year-old last played for the LA Galaxy during the 2009 season.
“I don’t think you can ever duplicate the joy and emotions that come with playing,” said Eskandarian, who suited up for five different MLS teams. “That was something really, really tough for me. It was not easy to swallow. I definitely went through some depression.”
But Eskandarian did his best to move on, going back to the University of Virginia — his alma mater — to finish up his degree and become a volunteer assistant coach for the Cavaliers’ soccer team.
All the while, he stayed in close contact with Nowak, and when the Union manager asked his former pupil to interview for a job on his staff, Eskandarian said the timing was perfect and accepted.
Now, Eskandarian’s new journey begins, in the same league where he once starred.
“I had been in MLS for a long time,” he said. “It’s always nice to get back into this environment, this atmosphere.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.