D.C. United head coach Peter Nowak isn't known to waste words. But this week, when asked what striker Alecko Eskandarian needs to get back on track, his answer was even more direct than usual.
"Goals," Nowak answered.
Nowak wasn't being flippant or snappish. He was concisely summing up the problem -- and solution -- behind the 2004 MLS Cup MVP's present lack of form.
Eskandarian was one of the league's breakout players last season, racking up 10 tallies in the regular season before pacing United's championship run with four playoff goals.
But after scoring the opening goal in D.C.'s CONCACAF Champions Cup campaign with a well-taken volley against Jamaica's Harbour View FC, "Esky" has fallen on hard times, going scoreless since. After averaging 2.4 shots a game last season, the aggressive striker has managed only six attempts in five games.
He's battled nagging injuries, attentive defenders and an inexplicable lack of good fortune that many would call the "sophomore slump" -- except that it's his third year in the league.
"I've been playing hurt all year, so that's in the back of my head. That's not an excuse, but I haven't played 90 minutes yet the entire season. It's going to come," says an ever-optimistic Eskandarian. "I'm working hard, and my main thing is just getting back into shape and into form."
A classic "finisher," Eskandarian's key contribution to the team, and indicator of success, is putting the ball in the back of the net. At the moment, the New Jersey-born striker's confidence is balancing on a knife's edge.
"He's got great guys around him, like Jaime (Moreno)," said Nowak, "so his understanding with him must be to run into space and find himself in a good situation, play one or two touches with him and make sure that (Moreno) is going to find him at the end of the play.
"Esky right now is in the mix. We talk to him to make sure he understands our position and what he needs to do for the team. But I think he needs to score goals for his confidence."
At times, the University of Virginia product has been handicapped by his own intensity, playing through knee troubles and a deep thigh bruise that seemed to hamper his tireless, hard-charging style.
"I'm a really competitive person, so even if I'm 75 percent I still want to play," said Eskandarian, "and I'm going to do whatever it takes to play on Saturdays. I don't like missing games, I don't like missing practices. I can't stand sitting on the bench and watching the group of guys that I'm supposed to be a part of going out there and battling, and me not being able to participate."
Said Nowak: "If he wants to fight through this injury he has, I appreciate that he wants to fight for this team, even if he's not 100 percent fit or healthy. (But) he wants it too much, and sometimes if you want something too much, it never happens. So we just want him to sit back, relax, think about some things, and make sure he plays quickly."
Eskandarian is trying to build on his team's positive result last weekend, a 3-1 win against Columbus that may signal a revival of United's fortunes as they prepare to visit the undefeated New England Revolution.
"Our last game was a step forward for me," he says. "I think I worked my butt off, and tried to create space for other guys. And we got the win. I play to win, I really don't play for stats. But with that said, I'm hoping I get on the scoresheet this weekend. That's my job as a forward -- to score goals."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.