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United Gets Its Cupful

Times Staff Writer

It was Alecko Eskandarian’s day all right, there was no doubt about that.

It was evident on the field, where his two goals helped D.C. United overcome a stubborn but ultimately outgunned Kansas City Wizards to win Major League Soccer’s ninth championship game, 3-2, in front of 25,797 in the Home Depot Center.

It was evident in the postgame interviews, when Eskandarian showed up with an MLS championship cap askew on his head, a fat cigar stuck between two fingers and a smile from here to Montvale, N.J., his hometown.

And it was evident in the smoke-filled and champagne-soaked United locker room, where son embraced father and Alecko Eskandarian told his dad he finally understands what it must have been like in the heady days of the North American Soccer League, when the Cosmos ruled the NASL and Andranik Eskandarian, an elegant defender from Iran, helped them win championships in 1980 and 1982.

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The Cosmos won five NASL titles in all, but the ghosts at the Meadowlands now can feel United creeping ever closer.

Saturday’s victory earned United its fourth MLS championship, to go along with those won in 1996, 1997 and 1999.

It was the first title for 22-year-old Alecko Eskandarian, in his second season in MLS, and the former University of Virginia forward was determined to make the most of it.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Words can’t describe it. This is the best team I’ve ever been on in my life. I can’t begin to explain how great this feels, how happy I am for all the guys on the team, the coaches and everybody. We worked so hard for this and we earned it.”

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Eskandarian, who scored four goals in four games for the United States in Guadalajara, Mexico, in March when the U.S. fell just short of qualifying for the Athens Olympics, was selected the game’s most valuable player.

That made the victory better still, especially after he had been on the bench for much of his rookie season.

“What I went through last year I hope no soccer player has to go through,” he said. “It was frustrating. But at the same time it made me a stronger person and made me even more determined to come this year and try to make something happen and try to prove myself.”

Kansas City scored first, defender Jose Burciaga Jr. catching former UCLA goalkeeper Nick Rimando by surprise with a superb shot from 30-plus yards in the sixth minute.

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United didn’t blink.

“There were 85 minutes still left to play, and with our attack we knew it was just a matter of time before we got back into it,” Eskandarian said. “We just stuck together, which is what we’ve done all year long.”

Eskandarian tied it in the 19th minute, holding off defender Nick Garcia and beating goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi with a rising left-foot shot.

Four minutes later, Eskandarian put United ahead for good, but in controversial fashion. An attempted clearance kick by defender Jimmy Conrad off a poor throw-in bounced off Eskandarian’s raised right arm. He then latched onto the loose ball and stroked it past Oshoniyi.

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The Wizards appealed in vain for the hand ball but were rebuffed by referee Michael Kennedy.

“If the referee doesn’t call it, then it’s not [a hand ball] and you’ve got to applaud D.C.'s opportunism,” Kansas City Coach Bob Gansler said.

In the 26th minute, a sharp cross from the right by winger Earnie Stewart, intended for Eskandarian, was accidentally deflected into the net by defender Alex Zotinca and United led, 3-1.

Three goals in seven minutes set a championship-game record.

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Josh Wolff scored on a penalty kick for the Wizards in the 58th minute after Dema Kovalenko handled the ball on the goal line and was ejected.

Playing a man short for half an hour, United hung on, and Freddy Adu, at 15, thus became the youngest athlete in U.S. history to win a national championship in a major professional team sport.

“It’s awesome, that’s all I can say,” he said.

Peter Nowak, 39, became the first to win an MLS title as a player and coach, having won with the Chicago Fire in 1998.

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“I’m really proud of these guys, they made me look like a genius,” he said.

“They trusted my vision, they shared the vision with me. It’s just amazing. We beat the champions [San Jose Earthquakes] in the first game of the season and today we are the champions.”

As for Kansas City, winning the U.S. Open Cup will have to suffice for 2004.

“We had a good year, we came up short,” Gansler said. “Last year, semifinals. This year, final. There is another step there. You’ll see us next year.”

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