In the wake of D.C. United's 2-0 victory against the MetroStars last weekend, coverage of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series has been dominated by plenty of discussion about Earnie Stewart's controversial opening goal.
In 67th minute, veteran midfielder Stewart found himself in acres of space when he latched on to Ryan Nelsen's long ball over the Metros defense, and with most of his startled defenders holding up their hands in search of an offside call, goalkeeper Jonny Walker was left helpless as Stewart lashed home what would be the game-winner.
"Christmas came early a little bit early for the fellas from D.C.," said Walker afterwards. "It was surprising. I know Earnie Stewart, and I don't think he's that fast."
The goal transformed the match, forcing the MetroStars to push forward in search of an equalizer, and Alecko Eskandarian made them pay in the dying moments when he slotted home United's second score to give his side another vital away goal.
But you won't find many apologists in the United camp.
"This is the past. We're looking forward to another game," said United head coach Peter Nowak. "There's nothing much to say now about last weekend. I think that if the referee and the whole committee said it wasn't offside, then it wasn't offside."
After watching video footage of the sequence himself, goalscorer Stewart has adopted a somewhat diplomatic tone.
"Yeah, I hear it's controversial," he said with a smile. "Even looking at the replay, you still can't see. You know, when defenders are running this way and offensive players are running that way, a 10-, 15-yard difference is there so quick. I expected a call, to hear a whistle, and I didn't hear anything, so I kept going. I can understand (the MetroStars) point, because we would have been all over the ref too."
But the longtime U.S. national team star noted that the Metros back line had been living dangerously throughout the match.
"They played that way the first half, and I thought they got lucky a couple times with the long balls, and the flag did go up," Stewart said. "I don't even necessarily think it was an (offside) trap, but they were so far up the field with their defense -- not that they wanted to play the trap, but in the end they had to, and it burned them a little bit, I guess."
The Metros also expressed frustration with United's physical play, as D.C. committed 23 fouls, many of which were of the "professional" variety, stalling offensive buildups and hampering the home side's attackers -- Amado Guevara, Cornell Glen and company.
United rookie midfielder Josh Gros shrugged off suggestions that his side used negative tactics to get the win.
"I thought it was fair," he said. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with how we played. I thought it was a good game plan, well-executed."
Gros welcomes the prospect of a bruising return leg at RFK Stadium this Saturday, where the Metros might be adopting some strong-arm tactics of their own.
"I think (they) should be," he said. "It's a man's game."
Nowak, whose team has endured some questionable refereeing decisions throughout the year, seems fully content to be the beneficiary of a difficult call for the officials' crew.
"It's a split-second decision, and the referee made a decision," he said. "The guys I heard from upstairs, all of them, from both sides, say that in the moment Ryan got the ball on his feet, it wasn't offside because two players from the far side kept (Stewart) on. This is what I got, and I think we have to see what it really is: it's 2-0."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.