DAD! COME here, Dad!"
Cradling the MLS championship trophy, D.C. United striker Alecko Eskandarian pulled his father, Andranik, close for a picture on Sunday. Here, in one frame, was the proud past and the promising present of American soccer: the defender who had won two NASL titles with the New York Cosmos a generation ago and his 22-year-old son, whose two goals had led United past the Kansas City Wizards 3-2 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., for his first MLS crown. Dad beamed as the pair embraced. "That smile," Alecko told Andranik, "is worth a million bucks."
In that case there's no telling what Young Esky's booming left foot may be worth someday. Though he might not be immortalized in a Jay-Z rap lyric (as 15-year-old teammate Freddy Adu has been), Eskandarian was calling out his own rhymes on Sunday in an eight-minute span of the first half, when D.C. surged to a 3-1 lead. First, he turned on defender Nick Garcia at the top of the penalty box and scored on a post-up move worthy of Shaq. Then Esky blocked a clearance from K.C.'s Jim Conrad in the backfield and buried a lefty shot on a breakaway. Finally, Wizards defender Alex Zotinca netted an own goal on Earnie Stewart's cross after being lured into the box by Eskandarian's run.
All three strikes were a testament to Esky's persistence. Yet the most evocative goal for Andranik was the first, which transported him to the backyard of the family's Montvale, N.J., house in the late 1980s. "That was his move when he was six years old," Andranik, 53, says. "Give him an inch, he doesn't miss. Even the neighbors knew that." When Alecko wasn't practicing in the yard as a kid, he was honing his left foot by taking shots in one of his dad's sporting goods stores against former Cosmos goalie Hubert Birkenmeier.
Despite scoring 154 goals at Bergen Catholic High and winning 2002 college player of the year honors at Virginia, Eskandarian nearly washed out at D.C. last year after being chosen first in the draft. "It was a nightmare," he says of his rookie season under coach Ray Hudson, during which he had only three goals and five starts. "I knew I just needed a chance." New coach Peter Nowak gave it to him, and Esky responded by scoring a team-high 14 goals, many of them golazos (soccerese for amazing). Explains Nowak, "I said many times to him, 'This is about your career. Your father was a great player, but you have to get out of his shadow. Everyone knows what kind of ability you have.'"
Esky's teammates have their own theories on his sophomore success. "He's hungry to score," midfielder Ben Olsen says about his friend. "He plays with passion and anger, and you see that in a lot of great players." Adds defender Ryan Nelsen, "Alecko had the talent last year, but he wasn't thinking as much as he should have. Now he knows when to step, when to run, when to fade. He's matured into a great player, and that's what happens when you have a year under your belt."
The same might be said next season of the rapidly improving Adu, whose budding attack partnership with Eskandarian and team MVP Jaime Moreno will have many observers predicting D.C.'s fifth title in the league's 10-year history. With all those trophies, in fact, Young Esky's United is starting to look a lot like Old Esky's Cosmos.
IS U.S. SNIPER Clint Mathis headed for Real Salt Lake, the 2005 expansion team run by former Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts? Sources told SI last week that RSL was seeking to bring Mathis back from Germany's Hannover 96, where he has fallen out of favor with coach Ewald Lienen. In September, Mathis scored as a late-game sub, then taunted Lienen by pointing at his watch, insinuating that he should have been inserted earlier. Mathis has played in only one match since.