United 2, MetroStars 0

A few minutes after D.C. United's 2-0 victory over the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in its MLS playoff opener Saturday night, Earnie Stewart was asked if he thought he was offside on his disputed goal midway through the second half.

Stewart grinned, paused and then tried to be as diplomatic as possible. After all, he had been nabbed by a couple of close calls early in the match.

"Um, I felt good after the goal," said the smiling Stewart, who collected Ryan Nelsen's long ball without any defenders in sight and stung a seven-yard shot past goalkeeper Jonny Walker. "The four [close] calls I had throughout the game, the first one I felt it could've been offside, the other two I felt weren't offside and this one I did feel, for some reason, that I was off. In the end, you get some and you don't get some. Maybe we got this, I don't know. I just had a feeling it could be very close, but in the end, we'll take it."

Said Walker: "Christmas came a little bit early for the fellas over there in D.C. . . . I didn't think [Stewart] was that fast. He had a bit of an advantage."

United would have been perfectly content to grab a tie on the road to begin the two-game, total-goals series before 11,161 at chilly Giants Stadium. Instead, Stewart's controversial strike in the 67th minute broke it open, and Alecko Eskandarian, who grew up in northern New Jersey, sealed it with an 18-yard shot in the 88th minute. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando made two superb saves on free kicks to thwart the highest-scoring team in MLS.

The victory was United's fourth straight and sixth in its past seven matches, but more importantly, it means D.C. (12-10-9) needs only to tie or lose by one goal in the second leg next Saturday at RFK Stadium to advance to the Eastern Conference final. United has the best home record in the league (9-2-4) and has gone five months without a loss at RFK.

The MetroStars (11-13-7) must win by two in Washington to force a 30-minute overtime period and, if necessary, a penalty kick tiebreaker.

The match got off to a clumsy start, but midway through the first half, each side began to create chances. Jaime Moreno's long ball through the defense found Eskandarian clear on the right, but instead of shooting, he crossed to Dema Kovalenko for a one-timer that smacked Walker in the chest. In the 38th minute, Rimando fully extended himself to the left to tip aside Amado Guevara's 25-yard free kick.

Kovalenko had another golden chance early in the second half, but his touch past Walker rolled wide of the right post. Walker then made an excellent lunging save on Nelsen's header off Eskandarian's corner kick.

Finally, in the 67th minute, Nelsen sent a 40-yard pass over the defense to the free-running Stewart, who calmly dribbled into the box before whistling an angled shot past Walker and into the far side of the net. As Stewart and his teammates celebrated in front of about a hundred United fans, Walker and the MetroStars swarmed the referee and linesman pleading for an offside call.

Television replays were inconclusive.

"To see how far he was from everybody," MetroStars Coach Bob Bradley said, "it makes you believe it was offside."

Bradley's team nearly tied it in the 74th minute, but Rimando soared to his left to slap away Guevara's free kick.

"I was already walking back to midfield because I thought it was going in," Nelsen said. "I thought we were goners. I don't know how he got to it."

Eskandarian sealed the outcome in the waning moments when he forced defender Jeff Parke to back off at the top of the box and then lashed a low left-footer into the right corner.

"That's a great, great, great feeling," Stewart said of the second goal. "It's not over, that's for sure, but it's a nice cushion to have going back to D.C."

United Notes: Given the circumstances -- a tightly contested match without much rhythm -- teenager Freddy Adu never got into the game, the first non-appearance of his rookie season. . . . United had not won a playoff game since the 1999 MLS final against Los Angeles.

Revolution Ends Crew's Streak

Avery John scored his first career goal to help the New England Revolution snap the Columbus Crew's 18-game unbeaten streak with a 1-0 victory yesterday in Foxboro, Mass.

Christian Gomez, right, D.C. United bring down Eddie Gaven and the MetroStars in the first of a two-leg playoff; the second leg is Saturday at RFK. It was United's first playoff win since 1999.