It's really been a joy watching Alecko Eskandarian blossom as a player this season. We knew he had the talent last year when he was drafted #1, and we all hoped that he would have a breakout season this year. With his MLS Cup MVP performance, he did not disappoint. The journey, however is more than a beginning and an end. In the beginning of the season, he played like your stereotypical American. Lots of hustle, tons or workrate, and taking opportunistic chances. He had a great finish early in the first match, but his game lacked polish. He didn't seem to have a lot to him other than a great work rate and a cannon of a left foot. I remember a conversation I had when I was first learning the game of soccer as a kid. I don't remember the man's name, but I remember what he told me. "You can tell the quality of players," he said, "by the way the ball reacts to their feet. The best players play with the quiet ball. The poor players bang it about like a drum set." Never was this more evident than 1996 when I was able to witness Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno make the ball fall silent at their feet, no matter the pace or direction from which it came. It was obvious within minutes of seeing them take the pitch that they were another class of player that I had only witnessed on television, or in brief glimpses at the World Cup in 1994. Then years passed, and DC fell on hard times. Marco and Jaime were no longer able to keep DC in the win column game after game. "Maybe the quiet ball wasn't so important after all," I thought. I began to look for and identify players with other striking qualities, thinking maybe they were the solution to my ailing team's woes. First it was speed, then size, then strength. I forgot all about the quiet ball. It all came back to me this week. I watched a bunch of matches from throughout this season in preperation for the Cup Final, starting with the Opener against San Jose, and concluding with last week's win over New England. Along the way, Esky went from being a lot of heart and a great shot into a great player. As his confidence grew, his touch on the ball became more refined. I'm not sure if it was due to the influence of Moreno and Nowak, or if he had this ability all the time, and just needed to stop pressing, but as the season went along, he really came of age. In the first part of the season, his game was all determination. His touches and passes were generally poor, but he made up for it by harassing the opponents into surrendering chances. Then a small change came about in (I believe) the first Columbus match. He figured out how to beat a defender with his back to the goal. He received the ball near midfield, turned to his right and blew past his mark, creating a scoring chance. He made several similar turns like this throughout the midseason, but he still has some trouble threading through balls, and all his goals came on first-touch strikes. He was scoring, though, and his confidence continued to grow. The next time Columbus came to town, he added anoher dimension to his game. He hit a perfect free kick into the upper 90. A strike that got my vote for Goal of the Year. Another dimension was added to his game. Late in the season we saw another change. He began to beat people on the dribble down the flank and sent in some dangerous crosses. He faked one particular Metrostar defender out of his jock in the swamp. Then the playoffs came, and the beast was unleashed. We saw him beat players on the dribble. We saw him hold them off with his back to the goal and lay the ball off to a teammate. And then, in the waning moments of game one in NJ, the breakthrough. He pushed the ball past Jeff Parke at the top of the box, created an inch of space, and slammed the ball into the corner of the goal. It all came together. In one play, he held off a defender, beat him, and scored. Finally he scored a goal that wasn't off a single, brilliant touch, set up by a teammate.. He created a goal that wasn't there. He wasn't just a poacher anymore. He was now a complete striker. The final revelation was in both the New England match and the Final. You may have noticed this year that DC United signed a teenager to a large contract with much fanfare. Freddy Adu is the latest practitioner of the Quiet Ball. He has been dazzling the world with his touch since the age of 11. However, Freddy's first touch failed him several times against New England. He slammed the ball into the ad boards afterward in frustration. His nerves has gotten to him. Alecko, on the other hand, was handling the ball with far more confidence than ever before. His touches had become quieter than Freddy's. Almost as quiet as Moreno's. In the final against Kansas City, he had some astonishingly quiet touches to settle difficult passes. He created another goal out of nothing when he turned on Nick Garcia and rifled a shot past Bo Oshoniyi to level the match. Was this in Alecko all along and he just needed to find his comfort level? Was it due to Moreno, Peter Nowak's, and Christian Gomez' influence, or a combination of the two? I tend to think it had more to do with the former than the latter. In adition to ability, a player needs to be confident and secure to be a true practitioner of the quiet ball. Last season, and early this year, Esky was constantly pressing for playing time. By the end of the year, he knew he was going to be on the field, and his game grew from it. All this makes me very hopeful for Freddy's future, as he becomes more comfortable playing games that matter against adults.