Alecko Eskandarian

By the time he finished his playing career at Virginia, Alecko Eskandarian was the king of college soccer. For the 2002 season, the third-year Cavalier won player-of-the-year awards from Soccer America magazine and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. He won the prestigious Hermann Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top player by the Missouri Athletic Club.

He had put his stamp on the UVA record book. His 25 goals in 2002 (including six game-winners) still rank as the top one-season total ever for a Cavalier. Earlier he had set the record for goals as a freshman with 16.

Eskandarian (Col ‘11) was a first-team All-American, and he had long since punched his ticket to play professional soccer. Indeed, DC United would make him the top pick in the 2003 Major League Soccer draft.

Hardly a surprise, then, that he was having a ragged academic year.

“My last semester before leaving, I did not do well,” Eskandarian says. “My head was probably in the clouds. I knew I was going pro, and I was putting soccer ahead of academics.”

He could have put college in his rear-view mirror and forgotten about it. But Eskandarian had promised his mother that he would get his degree, and vowed to himself that he would get that degree from Virginia.

“I began chipping away at it,” he says. He earned some credits at American University and El Camino University, and he endured the grind of commuting from Washington to UVA to take classes.

His pro career was progressing brilliantly. He was a two-time MLS All-Star and was the MVP of the league’s 2004 playoffs, leading DC United to the MLS Cup.

But a series of concussions ended Eskandarian’s soccer career. Unable to play the game he loved, he headed back to the university he loved. For the 2010-11 academic year, he served on soccer coach George Gelnovatch’s staff as an undergrad assistant, and finished the 80 hours he needed to get his anthropology degree. In May 2011, he graduated, making good on his promises to his mother and himself.

He had chosen Virginia over Princeton, he says, because “I fell in love with the place. Virginia had the perfect balance of soccer and academic reputation. It’s a great university. … I wanted to take advantage of that. It was never a matter of if I would finish.”

Eskandarian does not expect to play soccer again.

“It’s not my choice,” he says. “The doctors will not clear me. I still suffer from symptoms—from vertigo to headaches. And I had other injuries that would make it difficult, too.”

Now he has taken the next step in his soccer life. He accepted the position of youth technical director for the Philadelphia Union professional team. He will shepherd the team’s academy, assist in Reserve League competition and help manage regional club partnerships.

Nurturing young players comes naturally, he says. “Even as a player, I was drawn to the younger guys. I enjoyed helping them break in, showing them the hard work it took to play pro soccer.”

Gelnovatch says his former superstar has changed. “He is nearly 10 years older, and he is much more mature,” he says. “He has gone through so much.”

The Cavalier coach says Eskandarian has told subsequent Cavalier soccer players not to let academics slide as he did. “He uses himself as an example,” Gelnovatch says. “He tells them not to get caught up in the idea of going pro, not to let down on your academics.”

During Eskandarian’s year on the Virginia staff, he considered his future in professional soccer. “He got the chance to see what suited him,” Gelnovatch says. “He could go into coaching or he could go into management, maybe become a team’s general manager someday.

“He chose management over coaching, and the job he has with Philadelphia is perfect,” Gelnovatch says. “It’s exactly the kind of experience he will need.”