Top Atlantic Cup moments: The non-call on Earnie Stewart that helped with a championship

Though Rivalry Week is full of great moments between rival clubs, no matchup has history that dates back to the inaugural year of Major League Soccer the way the Atlantic Cup rivalry does.

And so, in honor of Saturday’s 72nd all-time meeting between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United (12:30 pm ET, NBC, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), we look back on the greatest moments in the history of the rivalry ... told by the people who remember it best.

Few rivalries in MLS carry as much antagonism on both sides as the Atlantic Cup, and few moments in big games are more polarizing than a controversial offside decision.

Put them together in an important postseason contest, and you have one of the hotter flashpoints in New York and D.C.'s long history.

The two teams have met in several tight playoff series over the years, and in 2004 they jousted in the Eastern Conference semifinals as the second (D.C. United) and third (MetroStars) seeds. This was a well-balanced matchup, with United having finished just two points ahead of the Metros in the regular season.

Coached by Bob Bradley and marshaled on the field by playmaker Amado Guevara, who would later edge out D.C.'s Jaime Moreno for league MVP honors, the MetroStars hosted the first leg at Giants Stadium and were optimistic of knocking off a United team which had struggled on the road all year.

READ: New York-DC United rivalry dates back to gritty glory days of MLS

It was still 0-0 at halftime, but five minutes into the second stanza, United winger Earnie Stewart broke clear down the right flank, meeting a through ball in acres of space behind the MetroStars back line. The former US national team star beat goalkeeper Jonny Walker for a 1-0 lead that Alecko Eskandarian doubled in the late going, effectively putting the New Jerseyites behind the eight-ball for leg two in D.C. – and setting United on the road to an MLS Cup championship.

But wasn't Stewart offside?

“I was sitting behind one of the player benches,” longtime MetroStars/Red Bulls supporter Miguel Nunez recalls. “Everyone could see it was offsides.  It wasn't even close.”

Mark Fishkin was another home fan on hand at the Meadowlands, and he's just as certain as Nunez.

“Earnie Stewart effectively ended the Metros' season with a spectacularly offside goal,” Fishkin, host of the Red Bulls-centric Seeing Red podcast, told MLSsoccer.com this week. “Stewart wasn't just offside by inches. He was miles and miles offside, and completely alone … Stewart might have been on a walkabout, he was so [far] from any teammate or opponent.

“Up until that point in the match, New York had completely held their own with D.C., giving MetroStars fans some hope, but the horrible miscarriage of justice utterly deflated the home side. Kevin Stott's officiating failed the Metros later in the match, when John Wolyniec was clearly taken down in the box without a call with minutes to play. But by then the damage was done.”

It might just be a matter of physical perspective, but United partisans take a different tone.

“We [traveling United fans] were all in the upper deck behind the goal, so we couldn't see if he was offside or not,” said David Lifton, a longtime member of D.C.'s Screaming Eagles supporters group. “As I recall, when I watched the tape on TV, there was no replay that went back to the point where the ball was played.”

READ: Top Atlantic Cup Memories: "Cheatin' Bob" Bradley and Eddie Gaven's confusing 10 seconds in goal

If that doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the goal's legality, consider Ryan Nelsen's recollection. Now a first-year head coach at Toronto FC, the New Zealander captained the Black-and-Red on that fateful night at the center of a three-man defense that also included current Red Bulls coach Mike Petke.

"It was a fantastic series, obviously a big rivalry,” said Nelsen from Toronto this week.

“Earnie Stewart – butter wouldn't melt in the man's mouth, USA legend, says he was 100 percent onside,” he added, tongue firmly in cheek, “so how can you doubt a man of such integrity as Earnie Stewart?”

Even when pressed on the resulting consequences – after all, that goal was a pivotal one, a massive psychological blow, and the eventual series winner as D.C. won the second leg 2-0 at RFK Stadium – Nelsen is unmoved.

"Aggregate 4-0, end of story,” he said. “If it didn't count it would have been 3-0 [aggregate] and we still would have went onto win the series. Had the first leg only ended 1-0, then maybe we would have tried in the second leg and maybe it could have been worse."

If you were wondering why the opposing sides of this rivalry heartily refer to one another as “Scum,” it's the lingering memory of incidents like this one.