A monthly feature about a U.S. Men’s, Women’s or Youth National Team player who demands that bright, shining spotlight.
"Big Fish: Bigger Pond?"
Big fish: little pond or small fish: Big pond? That’s what it came down to for U.S. Under-23 forward Alecko Eskandarian as he weighed his career options over the last six months. He came into his junior season feeling that he belongs in MLS, but at the same time realizing that he needed to prove himself over a full collegiate season to earn the respect and notoriety of pro scouts to get him there.
After a stellar freshman season at the University of Virginia in which he led the team in scoring (38 points) with a team-high 16 goals and six assists, he had an up-and-down sophomore campaign in which his scoring numbers were cut in half. He had come back early from an injury and paid the price with an average season. Perhaps this served as one of many important lessons that he will learn on his way to being a real pro.
It took call-ups to the first two U-23 Men’s National Team camps since the 2000 Olympics for him to realize that he might finally be ready to make the jump. All he had to do was consider that he was in fact thriving among teammates who were already in the early stages of their rookie years.
"Once I joined the Under-23s and we went on a few trips, I realized that (MLS) is where I want to be," said the Montvale, N.J. native. "(U-23 head coach Glenn Myernick) Mooch is one of the guys that really believes that being a pro will really help your development, and it made sense."
On the team’s trip to England to play against reserve teams from the Premiership and First Division, Eskandarian racked up two goals and two assists on a four-game winning streak to end up leading the team in scoring in 2002 with 10 points in just over four full matches.
"The summer trip to England went really well for me, and I was completely ready to become a professional after the (2002) season," said a modest Eskandarian. "At the same time, I put pressure on myself to have a good season. I wanted to go pro last season, but I had some injuries and wasn’t 100 percent and didn’t play all that well."
This year what he was hoping for a breakout season, and that’s what he got. To be quite frank, he went OFF in 2002, scoring an impressive 25 goals along with four assists in 20 games to lead the nation in scoring and set a record for goals in a single season at the soccer powerhouse that has been the home of U.S. stars like fellow East Coast guys Claudio Reyna and Bennie Olsen.
In just three years as a Cavalier, Eskandarian moved into a tie for sixth place on the school’s all-time scoring list and finished in the top four in goals (50), game-winning goals (15) and shots (272).
"Some of the goals Eskandarian scored here at Virginia were just spectacular—some of the most spectacular goals ever scored in UVa history. There’s no question in my mind that he is one of the most prolific goal scorers you will find," said Virginia head coach and sometime MNT assistant coach George Gelnovatch. "He is both a technical and powerful player, has great athleticism and has the desire to keep getting better as a player. He really knows how to challenge himself. I am in full support of him in his decision to take it to this next step."
With that big pile of goals, he turned a lot of heads that hadn’t responded to the last name Eskandarian since his dad played for the New York Cosmos back in the NASL days. MLS came calling, and Esky, as he’s known to some, answered with a lazy "Hel-LOW?"
"Leaving Virginia early was a tough decision, but it was not that hard of a decision because this is something I have been thinking about for a couple of years now," said the laidback 21-year-old. "I felt like this was definitely the right time for me to leave."
Speaking of timing--just a few days before finally putting ink on paper, Eskandarian became the first men’s college player to win the newly unified M.A.C. Hermann award as the country’s National Player of the Year, which virtually assures him of being one of the top few choices in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft.
"I wouldn’t mind playing for anyone," offered the New Jersey kid, specifically in response to recent articles that made it seem he’d only be happy with his hometown MetroStars. "I just want to play soccer. I just want to play in the MLS and get out there. I want to play for whoever wants me, you know what I mean? Fortunately for me, I have a lot of friends on all of these MLS teams, so I don’t think I’d feel uncomfortable anywhere."
Early in 2003 he’ll find out where he’s headed, and he’s quietly confident that he’ll find his role in whatever situation he’s thrown into, much as U-23 teammates like defender Kelly Gray, midfielders Kyle Martino and Brad Davis, and second-year forward Edson Buddle did this season. "I know I’ve got my work cut out for me, and all I can do is my best. I’m just looking to develop and play the best soccer that I can play. Hopefully that will be good enough for me to see the field."
But for the time being, that first big challenge of his young career as a paid player will have to wait. At the moment, he’s geared up to be pulling on that U.S. jersey as the U.S. Under-23 gather for the third time in 2002 to meet Canada in a pair of friendlies down in Ft. Lauderdale this weekend. With the 2004 Olympics less than two years away, distant thoughts of competing in Athens undoubtedly linger in the back of his head.
"It’s definitely on my mind. I would love to represent my country in the Olympics," said the 5’8" forward, who will likely face Olympic roster competition from players like Buddle, Landon Donovan, Santino Quaranta and Eddie Johnson who already have two pro seasons under their belt. "It’s not easy. With the way U.S. Soccer has it right now, we have so much depth and so many players that are really good now, no one’s roster spot is guaranteed."
This is something that he’ll probably have to face in his first year in the big leagues as he struggles to find a place within his new club and his new surroundings, but he’s up for it. In fact, he’s already running toward that pond ready to dive in.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (And the Winner Is…)
2) In Threes (w/ WNT forward Shannon MacMillan)
3) All I Want for Christmas Is… (w/ NT Staff, Players)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT midfielder Chris Armas)
5) Mark That Calendar (2002 Voting Deadlines)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ U-23 MNT forward Alecko Eskandarian)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Best Soccer Moment of 2002)
8) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (Chevy AOTY trivia)
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