Alecko Eskandarian
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Players absent, returning for D.C.

Injury concerns have been a recurring issue for D.C. United all season, and true to form, they continue to take center stage leading up to Saturday's showdown with the Chicago Fire. But for once, the coaching staff's deliberations center more on those players on their way out the training room door than those headed in.

Goalscoring co-leader Alecko Eskandarian sustained a high ankle sprain in practice last week, and is unlikely to make the trip to the Windy City.

Though he had been unable to do any running as of Wednesday, the University of Virginia grad is optimistic about a quick recovery.

"I'm definitely ahead of schedule with the rehab and everything," Eskandarian said. "I have two torn ligaments in my ankle. They thought I broke my fibula at first, which was scary to me because that would've meant three months in a cast. I was really relieved."

The injury forced "Esky" to stay home and watch last week's 0-0 draw at New England, which, as you might expect to hear from a striker, made for less than enjoyable viewing.

"It killed me last week to watch that game in New England, especially with a 0-0 game when no one could really put away a chance," he said. "I wanted to be out there. I think the official (prognosis for the injury) is at least three weeks out mandatory, but I don't really agree with that. I think a week and a half will be fine."

Also missing Saturday's match is defender Ezra Hendrickson, though his situation is a bit more complicated. Hendrickson sat out last weekend with a strained hamstring, but still reported for national team duty with St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Wednesday.

Hendrickson is a key member of the tiny island nation's squad, having captained the team for years, and his presence would be especially vital for Saturday's World Cup qualifier against powerhouse Mexico in Pachuca.

Hendrickson is monitoring his recovery and has agreed to contact United before making a decision about playing Saturday, but the uncertain status of his injury is cause for concern among team officials.

"We let him go, but he's going to report to us his condition," said head coach Peter Nowak. "I told him that I don't want to risk anything: you cannot go to the national team and play with a little injury, and come back and be injured for another four or five weeks. His hamstring is not 100% fit."

True to his reputation as a players' coach, Nowak is trying to strike the tenuous balance between the priorities of club and country.

"My way is to respect the national team," he says. "I played for my country and I know the situation, how strong you feel. It's always an honor, but you have to be smart to make sure that you're not going to hurt yourself (worse). I just want to make sure that we communicate and understand each other very well."

Hendrickson's spot in the center of defense will likely be filled by team captain Ryan Nelsen, whose return from a sports hernia injury comes at the perfect time for the Black-and-Red.

Having undergone surgery over the All-Star break in July, "Nellie" is eager to get back on the pitch.

"For the first time in three or four months, I can actually run without any pain or discomfort, which is good," he said. "I have a lot of pain in the lungs though-I think that's more just being unfit, maybe."

When asked if he will be capable of playing 90 minutes in his first match back, Nelsen seems confident.

"Obviously I'm going to try," he said. "I've had two trainings in six weeks, so there's a big coating of rust on me, but besides that, it seems all right. This is such a key game."

Though short of match fitness, Nelsen is a team leader whose mere presence should provide a boost for the squad, as evinced by fellow defender Mike Petke's words.

"I definitely can say Nellie's going back in the middle-it's where he belongs," says Petke. "He's our leader, he's our captain, and he's the best player we have, as far as I'm concerned."

Charles Boehm is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.