Stewart departs an MLS champion

Earnie Stewart ended his D.C. United career the best possible way on Sunday, lifting the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy after creating the game-winning goal in a 3-2 United victory at the 2004 MLS Cup.

Stewart said on Saturday that he would be returning to Holland after two years with United, and when he walked off the field at The Home Depot Center a champion, he knew he could say goodbye to his teammates on the best possible terms.

"I thought it was a nice feeling to know that this was going to be my last game," he said. "(MLS Deputy Commissioner) Ivan Gazidis told me two days ago that it was all right to move on. Every club I played for, I never knew that it was going to be my last game, and this is very, very special."

In the 26th minute, Stewart capped an astonishing flurry of United goals -- three tallies in seven minutes -- when he latched onto a loose ball on the right side of the Wizards box in the 26th minute and pushed the ball past Jose Burciaga Jr. to send in an endline cross for Alecko Eskandarian.

The near post service didn't make it to Eskandarian, but it glanced off Wizards defender Alex Zotinca and flew into the net for what turned out to be the game-winner. United did not relinquish the lead, despite giving up a 58th-minute penalty kick that also resulted in Dema Kovalenko's ejection, forcing United to finish a man short.

Stewart's last MLS match ended when he was replaced by defensive specialist Brandon Prideaux in the 82nd minute.

"I subbed in for Earnie and I almost feel bad, because that guy worked his butt off for 80 minutes and I came in and got a little bit of the glory, being on the field when we won," said Prideaux.

United captain Ryan Nelsen was full of praise for Stewart, who he called his "mentor" as he took on the mantle of team leadership over the past two years.

"The fans and the media, I don't think they really understand what he means to this team," said Nelsen. "For me as a captain, I can just look to his experience. He's been my mentor, the way he's taught me about the game, he's taught me to be a professional.

"I've got nothing but amazing words, and I owe him so much for everything -- for me improving as a player, for the team, he's just been incredible. This league didn't know what they had when they got him, and we're so sad that he's going to be leaving."

Second-year striker Eskandarian was even more effusive.

"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had in my entire life," said Eskandarian of Stewart.

Stewart, for his part, hailed his D.C. teammates, who overcame a weak start and long losing streak on the road to finish the season as the hottest team in MLS -- and now its champions.

"This group of guys we have here is amazing, and that's why it's so special," said Stewart. "These guys -- I'm going to miss them so much. That's what makes it so special. So diverse, from young to old -- from 15 years old to 35 years old. An amazing mix of guys. Everybody has pretty much the same mindset. On and off the field, we do a lot together -- we go to parties together, we do amazing stuff together, and that's why its so special. I'm going to cherish this for a lot of days, I'll tell you that much."

Stewart said that he is in varying stages of talks with two Dutch clubs.

"One is a matter of putting ink on the line, the other one is a waiting period, so I don't know yet where it's going to be," he said.

Stewart, who is of split Dutch-American ancestry, was wistful about his time in MLS, and seemed ready to return to the European style of play.

"It's very hard to play in MLS," said Stewart. "I played so many different positions, and not necessarily any of the positions that I was good at. At times that was very frustrating. I'm a versatile player -- that's not always a good thing, especially when you want to play a certain position that you know you're very good at. When I came here, I was going to be an attacking midfielder, but that never happened.

"This is a very, very physical game over here, not so much with the tackling or anything, but physical as in there's so much running, and not necessarily running with a method. Everybody puts their whole heart on the field, which makes it very difficult to calm the game down sometimes."

But the U.S. national team veteran also praised the never-say-die attitude of American players, as exemplified by Kansas City's gutsy second-half comeback effort.

"When we play against other teams," he said, "it's very, very hard to try and kill these teams, because they're always going to be there, no matter whether they're 1-0 down, 2-0 down. An American team like this is always, always in the game."

Stewart, who has been a presence on the national team for more than a decade, seemed to suggest that career too was over, but he did not rule out a return to coach Bruca Arena's side.

"I have no clue," said Stewart of his international career. "I think it's over, but anytime (Arena) would need me I'd be more than willing and happy to help him out. (But) I don't think that's the case anymore."

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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