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May 18, 2006

Back with a vengeance

After Alecko Eskandarian's 10-month injury layoff with post-concussion syndrome, one of the many questions surrounding the D.C. United forward was: What part of his game would be the slowest to come back? Would it be his fitness? His touch? His on-field awareness? Eskandarian ponders this question for a moment before responding, "My heading." At which point, he erupts with a laugh that could rattle any nearby windows.

That Eskandarian, 23, can joke about his time in injury-induced limbo is as sure a sign as any that his comeback is complete. But there have been other, more tangible indications, as well. Not only is the Montvale, N.J., native back scoring goals but some of them have been of the jaw-dropping variety, including a thumping volley in last week's 2-1 victory over Kansas City that exited the goal as quickly as it entered.

Then there are the goal celebrations, including his now infamous swig of Red Bull that he spit onto the Giants Stadium turf after he scored against New York on April 22. That maneuver resulted in a $250 fine, turning the suits at Major League Soccer into major league killjoys. Less controversial were the push-ups he performed after tallying against the Wizards, a reference to the punishment he faces in practice when he misses the target during finishing drills. But more important than goals and celebrations is that Eskandarian is not only playing again but doing so with a smile on his face.

"I'm just trying to have fun this year," Eskandarian says. "I think people sometimes lose the fun aspect of this job. It's such a business. I truly enjoy myself when I'm out there, and if I score a goal, I'm going to really celebrate."

There was certainly little reason to celebrate during the 2005 season. The scoring touch that came so readily in 2004 deserted him in the early part of the year. Then, on June 18, a terrifying collision with New England goalkeeper Matt Reis left Eskandarian with his third concussion in three years, and when the migraine headaches that accompanied the injury persisted, the 2004 MLS Cup MVP was sent to the sidelines with a simple remedy: Rest until the headaches go away.

Except they didn't go away. Two months stretched into six, with no end in sight. So frustrated was Eskandarian with his prescribed rehab that he went to practice one day and instructed equipment manager Francisco Tobar to give him every sweatshirt he had. As he walked around the field looking like a sweat-stained Michelin Man, United head coach Peter Nowak intervened and sent his injured forward home.

Nowak recalls, "I gave him three weeks off and just said, 'Go back to your family. Go home to a good environment, relax and just forget about the whole thing.' I was trying to not only be positive but to keep him out of trouble."

At this stage, Eskandarian withdrew. He took classes and generally tried to think of anything but soccer. But there were constant reminders, as well.

"It was frustrating," Eskandarian says. "Even with my parents, every single day they would call me and say, 'How do you feel today?' And after six or seven months of hearing that, I would just say 'Look, I'll call you when I feel better. Stop asking me how I feel because I feel like crap.' I had a migraine every single day. It was pretty taxing on me, and emotionally it was the toughest thing."

Eskandarian states that he hit rock bottom in September, when, in addition to his injury troubles, he was forced to cope with the death of his grandfather, Galoost. Yet it was during that somber occasion that a glimmer of hope began to emerge.

"I went to the funeral in California, and my whole family was there," Eskandarian says. "And you just realize how much people are praying for you, and that just put everything into perspective a little bit. So my low point was kind of a turning point, as well."

Eskandarian returned to Washington, D.C., determined to make the best of his situation. A self-described "soccer nerd," the United forward decided that if he was going to be forced to watch games, he was going to become the Roger Ebert of MLS, poring over game film and vowing that when he got back on the field, he would apply what he had learned.

He discovered that he needed to improve his holdup play and to make better decisions as far as when to pressure defenders and when to sit back. Eskandarian also promised himself he would be more of a leader, especially after watching United's first-round playoff meltdown at the hands of the Chicago Fire.

"Watching as a spectator is so much different than as a player," he says. "You just realize little things, such as the intensity that we were lacking at the end of last year, which is ultimately why Chicago kicked our ass. They just wanted it more, going hard into tackles, winning second balls."

Eskandarian finally was given permission to resume light training with the team in January, and the early stages of his return were encouraging. A sports hernia that required surgery in March proved to be a temporary setback, and when he resumed training, the changes in his game became apparent to coaches and teammates alike.

"I think in 2005, one problem [Eskandarian] had was that he felt he had to score goals and [repeat his] form of 2004," Nowak says. "He was impatient. He was trying to dribble four or five guys at once, so he always lost possession, and he lost too much energy. I think he's more valuable now because he holds the ball up better, he runs off the ball very well and he's using the options around him."

"I think [Eskandarian] has come back a lot hungrier than he was before," United midfielder Josh Gros adds. "He's definitely got an extra hop in his step, an extra spark, and I think he wants to prove himself like he did in 2004."

So far, Eskandarian is doing that and more, despite being razzed by his teammates for the protective headband he now wears around his head, which has earned him the nickname "Headgear." In the meantime, the United forward is savoring every moment.

"I'm just grateful to play this sport, the game that I love, as my job," Eskandarian says. "I love coming to practice every day. I love coming in on game day and hearing the fans, everything like that."

And yes, that includes the heading.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com