Friday, October 17, 2003

Did I jinx him? The thought ran through my mind this week as I sat on the sidelines in the glorious sunshine at RFK Stadium. I’d come to talk to D.C. United forward Earnie Stewart, one player who can make a big difference as United goes into its last two games needing one win or tie to reach postseason play for the first time in four years.

Stewart as usual, was running all over the field despite his 34-year-old legs. Then he pulled up nearby holding his thigh. It looked like he had pulled a groin muscle.

“Are you OK?” I asked. “You will be OK for Sunday?”

“I’m not too good at injuries,” Stewart replied. “I haven’t had too many.”

United needs Stewart more than ever right now, so this is not the time for the speedy striker to pick up an injury. He missed training yesterday but should be ready to face the Columbus Crew at RFK tomorrow.

On an eclectic team of contrasting personalities, bulging egos and quick tempers, Stewart is a calming presence and a good organizer on the field. Amid the strange brew of players that make up Major League Soccer, Stewart is a true professional, raised on the elegant Dutch soccer that has produced so many great players in recent years.

“He’s such a very good quality all-round player,” said United coach Ray Hudson.

Statistics sometimes lie in soccer, and the numbers have not been fair to Earnie this season. On paper, he has one goal and two assists in 20 games, but those figures fail to tell the whole story. Stewart is an unselfish player. He notices that some players are more concerned about padding their numbers rather than making the final insurance pass to assure a goal. But that’s not Stewart’s way. He’s a team man.

“From a league standpoint, everything is so individually driven here,” said Stewart the son of a U.S. Air Force veteran and a Dutch mother. “There’s so much emphasis on statistics in the United States. But the only statistic that matters to me is whether you have three points at the end of the game.”

Playing behind United forwards Ronald Cerritos and Thiago Martins, the three-time World Cup veteran likes to spray the ball across the field and make dashing runs into the box.

“I like playing there because I can talk a lot and organize things,” Stewart said. “I think we lack that at times.”

Adapting to MLS after 14 years in the Dutch League has not been easy, but in the last few months he has been an integral part of United’s resurgence.

“The system where he comes from, they are all like Earnie Stewart,” Hudson said. “It’s the Dutch way. Here, he’s trying to inject all of that into the players, and he’s coming to grips that it ain’t going to happen. He’s such a good influence, and they can all take a page from Earnie, but our league is not the [top Dutch league]. You can’t build Rome in one day.”

In some ways, Stewart is the dean of American soccer players. He first played on the U.S. national team in 1990 and still seems to be in coach Bruce Arena’s plans as World Cup qualifying nears.

In Holland, Stewart lived in a farmhouse; now he lives in Reston with his wife and two young children. He has no intention of hanging up his cleats just yet.

“I work out with a lot of young players here, so that keeps me young,” he said. “I just love the sunshine and kicking a ball around a field.”

As for tomorrow’s game against the Crew, Hudson is calling it the “biggest game the club has had in four years.” He believes the first goal will be vital.

“We have to earn that right to get that first goal,” Hudson said. “This is a great opportunity to close the door on this thing. For me, it’s been a nightmare season.”

But the real pressure will be on the visiting Crew, who must win to stay in the playoff race.

“They are going to come here like a wounded animal,” said United captain Ryan Nelsen. “We have to match their intensity.”

Corner kicks — Los Angeles coach Sigi Schmid was spotted scouting players at Maryland’s 4-0 win over Connecticut at College Park on Sunday. Schmid had flown in from the Galaxy’s 2-1 loss in overtime at Kansas City the day before. … Two-time A-League coach of the year Bob Lilley, 37, has decided to leave the Montreal Impact and is looking for a job in MLS.

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