His parents were so proud on that spring day in 1983. Nine-month-old Alecko Eskandarian was crawling around their family room in Washington Township, N.J., when he suddenly stood up for the first time. His father, Andranik, quickly knelt in front of his boy, imploring Alecko to walk to him. Bui Alecko had other plans he booted a Nerf soccer ball with all his might. "Our kid is crazy," Andranik said to his wife, Anahid.
Fast-forward seven years: Alecko and Andranik, who emigrated from Iran in 1978 and was a standout defender for the New York Cosmos from '78 through '85, are in their backyard. Andranik sets up a soccer goal and spends the afternoon teaching his son to play the sport. Finally, Andranik calls it quits and retreats inside. Some three hours later Andranik spies Alecko alone in the darkness, running around, pumping his fists and uncorking one shot after another toward the net. "That's when I knew he had a chance to be special," says Andranik. "He lives for soccer."
Indeed, Alecko's passion is one of the reasons he has developed into a top collegiate player and a potential U.S. national team member. Through Sunday, Eskandarian, a 20-year-old junior forward at Virginia, was second in the NCAA in goals (20) and in points (44). Though the 10-5 Cavaliers have struggled by their high standards this season (they were 17-2-1 last year and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament), Eskandarian was on pace to break the school's single-season goals record (23), set by A.J. Wood in 1994.
Eskandarian is only 5'9" and 160 pounds, but he is smart and has great field vision. "Soccer is much more mental than it is physical," says Alecko, whose older brother, Ara, played at Villanova. "Ninety percent of the game is anticipation. I try to read everything that's happening and then put myself in a good position."
Another reason Eskandarian excels is his booming shot. (When he was 16 months old he drove a ball through a window in his home.) While at New Jersey's Bergen Catholic High, Eskandarian relied on that explosive left foot to score 154 career goals, the second most in New Jersey high school history. Along the way he encountered opponents who tried every dirty trick in the book to stop him. Eskandarian had his nose broken three times during hard tackles or off-the-ball cheap shots. The abuse has continued at Virginia, where he has had his nose fractured two more times. Nearly every game he is aggressively marked by the opposing team's best and often biggest defender.
"This level is frustrating for Alecko because he's so advanced that he tries to do it all himself," says Cavaliers coach George Gelnovatch. "He's technically gifted and he strikes the ball much better than most, so he has the potential to be a national team player. But it's not a sure thing. He's got to keep improving."
Eskandarian is leaning toward leaving school after this season to play either overseas or in MLS. (He's fielded inquiries for his services from both.) He has already secured a spot in the 25-man pool for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, but his ultimate goal is to reach the World Cup. For years he has heard his father tell stories about playing in the 1978 Cup for Iran and marking world-class strikers such as Scotland's Joe Jordan. Since then Alecko has wanted to follow Andranik's footsteps onto soccer's biggest stage. "That's always been my dream," Alecko says. "I have a way to go, but it's something that I'm striving for."
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