D.C. United walked away from Giants Stadium on Saturday night with a 2-0 aggregate lead over the MetroStars in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series thanks to a cagey veteran and a controversial call.
After a long series of close calls and missed opportunities from both sides, United midfielder Earnie Stewart netted the game winner in the 67th minute on a play where it seemed nobody in the stadium knew whether Stewart was offside or not.
Shortly after a restart from an offside call in United's own half, Ryan Nelsen played a long ball toward the right flank and Stewart ran under it several yards beyond the home side's last defender. Carrying the ball into the box as the MetroStars' defense stood frozen in their places with their hands in the air, he had all the time in the world to give United the eventual winner.
"To see him that far away from everybody makes you believe that he was probably offside," said MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley. "From where we stand on our bench, it's not a view you can see real well. The joys of TV mean we can't even say for sure when we watch on TV. At the end of it all, we're still looking and looking and looking."
Even Stewart didn't know if he was really onside.
Roaming the right flank throughout the match, Stewart spent much of the first half streaking up the sideline looking to sneak past the Metros' back line. On three occasions in the first 45 minutes, the U.S. international was caught cheating and he wasn't happy about it, voicing his frustration to the linesman.
Before planting the ball in the back of the net, Stewart hesitated for a moment in anticipation of another whistle. But when the flag stayed down, he got his redemption for the first-half infractions.
"The first one, I could see. The other two, I had a feeling I was on," Stewart said. "Then on the other side, the goal comes. Of course, you see the frustration on their faces, and we'd be the same way. In the end, I couldn't tell you if it was on or off. I did hesitate because somehow I kind of expected a whistle to blow, but luck was on our side this time."
Bradley had warned his players at halftime about Stewart's runs on the right. Unfortunately for him and his team, the warnings were to no avail.
"We did talk about that at halftime," Bradley said. "You could see that they were looking to try to take advantage of things on that side of the field."
United head coach Peter Nowak credited Stewart's work rate and the fact that United's improved midfield play in the second half helped open up the right flank.
Nowak might also be able to give Stewart indirect credit for the second goal. Down 1-0 with little time to play, the MetroStars pushed forward, and as a result, Eskandarian was able to find a little space in the penalty box and put away an insurance goal to paint the MetroStars into a corner.
However, both coaches naturally maintained anything could happen.
"It's all still to be played for next week," said Bradley. "We'll go back down there and we'll work hard all week and see if we can't get back into this whole thing. Soccer's a funny game. Tonight I thought maybe the breaks went a little bit their way, and hopefully we can turn that around next week."
When the series switches to United's home of RFK Stadium next weekend, don't expect Nowak's team to pack it in and sit on their lead.
"From our end, the series is not over," he said. "We know that. We have to play soccer, and we're not going to change anything in our approach to the game."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.