A New Jersey Soccer Story: Alecko Eskandarian

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This is the third article in the Empire of Soccer series on the men and women from the New York/New Jersey area who are now playing, or have played professional soccer. 

By JACK BELL

imgresIt is accurate to say that Alecko Eskandarian has never known life without soccer.

“Really my earliest memory is being in the locker room with my dad’s Cosmos team,” said Eskandarian, 34, who is now the senior manager of player relations/competition at Major League Soccer HQ in Manhattan. “I was just starting to walk, but was already kicking a ball around. I remember all the different faces. I was loving it as a little kid, though I had no concept, no idea. I was just so excited about being around soccer players.

“In locker room were all the guys: Hubert [Birkenmeier] and my dad were closest. Carlos Alberto would come into the locker room after different tours and he was always a guy my dad loved. Carlos would pull me aside to teach new things. I also loved kicking around with guys like Darryl Gee and David Brcic.”

Not a bad way to cut your soccer teeth, before even cutting your real teeth.

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Carlos Alberto with Alecko, left and Ara.

Birkenmeier (a German) and Andranik Eskandarian (an Armenian Christian from Iran), an unlikely and inseparable twosome at home and on the road with the Cosmos of old (where they were roommates and their names were conflated simply to “Eskenmeier”), still prowl the aisles at a soccer store in Hackensack, N.J. Eskandarian opened a second store, in Ramsey, N.J., which is overseen by Ana, wife and mother to Alecko and his older brother Ara.

“My brother and I were always playing in the basement at home,” Alecko said.

From those early days soaking up the atmosphere, hijinks and soccer knowledge from a team of players that were truly the galáticos before the term was invented (and before it became associated with Real Madrid), Alecko Eskandarian rode a soccer trajectory from youth soccer, to staring at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, to the University of Virginia (where the prolific goalscorer won the Hermann Trophy in 2002, which goes to the top male and female collegiate players), and then the No. 1 over all draft pick in Major League Soccer in 2003. He played four years for D.C. United (then for Toronto, Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy, before being forced to retire after sustaining multiple concussions.

“I started playing as a 4 year old for the Montvale Mighty Mites,” he said. “My dad has video of me scoring my first two goals. My head was bigger than my whole body. My dad taught me everything I know about the game. He always was very good about teaching me, almost life lessons through soccer. He never forced me but always paid close attention. As I got older I got started to understand that my dad was a damn good player, and then his words had more meaning to me. My dad spent many hours with the salt and pepper shakers, and plates talking soccer at dinner table with different condiments and silverware.”

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Andranik Eskandarian with the Cosmos.

The elder Eskandarian was one of only two non-Muslims who played for Iran in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. The swift and tenacious outside right back later joined the Cosmos and became a fan favorite. He experienced a troubling episode when the Cosmos played at Fort Lauderdale at the height of what became known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis. A man jumped out of the stands at Lockhart Stadium and attacked Eskandarian.

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The elder Eskandarian played for Taj, now called Esteghlal, in Tehran.

“Growing up, our first language was Armenian,” Alecko said. “Culture was an important part of my upbringing and I went to an Armenian school in New Milford. The genocide forced Armenians to move and Iran was one of the countries that were receptive. My dad is quiet about that stuff. He endured a lot and it made him stronger. He always said that in Iran they consider him Armenian and in America some people will always consider him to be Iranian.”

Until his early teenage years, an admittedly shy Alecko played on the local teams in Montvale before moving to the Ramapo Wildcats and playing against better competition. While a freshman at Bergen Catholic a friend suggested he try out for the regional ODP team.

“I made the area team, then made state team,” he said. “I didn’t really start and they were playing me at left back just because I’m a lefty. I was too shy to even say anything, I was just excited to make the team. My poor dad drove up and back to Trenton twice a week. All the way he was asking why I’m not going forward. We had a lot of difficult car rides home. If I was my dad I would have stopped driving. He would say, ‘Why don’t you show yourself, you’re not even playing.’ Once I got the confidence to show myself, I dribbled past a whole team and scored. The coach said he’d try me at forward, which was my position, and I never again played in the back.”

Before he became a four-year varsity high school sensation in Bergen County, Eskandarian was once watching his brother practice because Bergen Catholic at the time barred freshman from playing varsity.

“My brother was captain of varsity team,” Alecko said. “I would practice with the freshman team and sit in stands and watch varsity practice. It’s funny how I got my opportunity after spending the first month with the freshman. A player got hurt and they needed a body. They asked me to jump in and I scored six goals in practice. I think that made me an exception to the rule.”

He went on to score a record 154 goals in four years, including an incredible 66 in his senior season in 1999.

From there it was on to Virginia, where he played for George Glenovatch, MLS and a stint as an assistance coach with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (leading the club’s B team to an NPSL title in 2015). While in Los Angeles with the Galaxy, Eskandarian received a curious call on his cellphone — from Kris Jenner, the mother of Kim Kardashian.

“I got a call out of the blue and they ran me through 20 questions,” he said. “We went out to dinner, cameras and all for ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians.’ It was fine. I knew what I was getting into. You know, the whole Armenian thing and the whole TV thing.”