Former MLS Cup MVP and D.C. United star Alecko Eskandarian has seen a successful professional career repeatedly interrupted by injuries, the most serious of which drove him to the sidelines a little more than a year ago. A perennial fan favorite, "Esky" has not been medically cleared to play since suffering the fourth concussion of his pro career during an L.A. Galaxy exhibition match against A.C. Milan in 2009.
Forced to reevaluate his future, Eskandarian returned to college after a 10-year hiatus and will finally receive his degree from the University of Virginia this month. He’s also been serving as an assistant to Cavaliers head men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch. Eskandarian recently sat down with Potomac Soccer Wire intern Jenny Taylor for an update on his time away from professional soccer, including his fondest memories from MLS, the coaching fortunes of former teammate Ben Olsen and the lessons from his own personal “back to school” experience.
PSW: As of Spring 2010, you were not medically cleared to play in the MLS. Why?
AE: As I think most people know by now, as a result of injuries while playing in MLS, I have been sidelined indefinitely for the last year and a half or so. Doctors have evaluated me and declined to give me medical clearance to play soccer...unfortunately I am still suffering from symptoms which affect me on a daily basis. It has been extremely frustrating and depressing to have the game that I love most in this world taken away from me under these circumstances, but I realize that my health is the most important priority at this time.
PSW: What made you decide to come back to your alma mater and help out with the men's team as an assistant coach?
AE: When I left the University of Virginia early to go pro, I promised my mom that I would earn my degree from UVA, no matter what sacrifices I needed to make. Throughout my career, I took classes on the side to slowly chip away towards my goal. In 2004, I commuted four hours round-trip from D.C. to Charlottesville twice a week in order to earn credits. I took classes at American University and El Camino College in Los Angeles.
When I was struggling with recovering from my injuries and hit an all-time low in early 2010, I decided that it would make most sense for me to return to UVA to finally finish my degree rather than feeling sorry for myself. I needed to escape the depression and helplessness that loomed over my head while being in L.A. and unable to do anything. Returning to school was a blessing in that it allowed for me to feel productive again and keep myself busy instead of going crazy thinking about my injuries. Plus, I was given the opportunity to work as a volunteer assistant coach with the UVA men's soccer team, which has been fantastic.
PSW: What have you learned about the game as an assistant coach for UVA that maybe you didn't know as a player?
AE: This experience has been so beneficial for me...I have learned so much from the coaching staff and the players themselves. In return, I have been able to pass down and share my own experiences as a player and as a student. The fact that I might be able to get through to some of these kids and hopefully even make 1% of a difference in their lives is invaluable to me and truly rewarding. Being on the coaching side of things has been interesting, and I have been lucky to be around a coach who is as experienced as Coach Gelnovatch.
PSW: Have you given any thought to joining Ben Olsen on the D.C. United coaching staff?
AE: [Laughs] That is a question better suited for Ben to answer. I think he has enough on his plate at the moment than to be thinking about offering me a position. Benny's a very good friend of mine and I'm very happy for him. I think he has done a great job thus far and wish him continued success. He is absolutely one of my favorite teammates of all time. My immediate goals are to graduate from UVA and to continue to recover from my injuries; then I will be open to any opportunities that might come my way.
PSW: You've played for several different teams in your MLS career. Which was your favorite and why?
AE: The 2004 [MLS Cup] championship D.C. United team. I felt as though all my teammates were my brothers and they would go to war for me just like I would for them. We definitely went through a bunch of ups and downs that only brought us closer together as a group. So to win the championship was a storybook ending to a journey that had a lot of adversity, especially for me personally. I felt I was able to prove a lot of people wrong who had doubted my ability to have success at the next level, and to come through in the championship game when it mattered the most will be a memory I will never forget.
PSW: Can you give any advice to kids out there who want to play college or professional soccer?
AE: There are no secrets. The same qualities and tools that are necessary in order to be successful in anything else are also required to be a successful soccer player. Discipline, commitment, hard work, practice are all basic qualities that are needed. Then that allows for other things like raw talent, physical and technical ability, and being a student of the game. I firmly believe that all this hard work should also be fun. Once the fun aspect is taken away from the game for a child, they will be at risk of losing interest.