As much of Washington sits in the semidarkness of morning rush-hour traffic, soccer players from the University of the District of Columbia already are sweating and straining through vigorous drills and scrimmages on a frosty field at 16th and Kennedy streets NW.

In his first year as a college soccer coach, Juan Zenzano is leading the Firebirds to their best midseason record in the team's four-year history. At the same time, Zezano -- a native of Bolivia -- works full time selling used cars.

"It's the first time in my life that I ever got up at 5 a.m.," Zenzano said recently after a predawn workout at Carter Barron Field. "With my business, early morning was the only time I could hold practice."

Zenzano's players attribute their success to the early workouts that come during a season of 16games, their toughest schedule ever.

"He has stressed more physical development than most coaches do," said Sean Kerns, a Betheada-Chevy Chase High School graduate, now a junior playing defense. "It's much better for us, too, since most of the players have classes in the afternoon and might be forced to choose between school and soccer practice."

Before sunrise, Zenzano's players -- who come from nine different countries -- are on the field developing their skills.

"It hasn't been easy to bring all the different styles together," said Zenzano, 34, a former semipro player in Bolivia. "Since we have so many different countries represented here, the [players] each had their own philosophy."

So Zenzano, who served as an unpaid assistant last year, developed his own philosophy.

"Go play soccer. Not winning at any cost," he tells his players. "I stress that we are playing soccer as a team, not as individuals but as a team."

Mostafa Fereshtevadi, a sophmore midfielder from Iran on a half scholarship to UDC, is a firm believer in Zenzano's theory. "I have more assists than anybody else on the team," he said. "I could score 10 goals if I wanted too. But I know that it's important to run and play."

Zenzano agrees: "His value is not on paper. He's the smallest [at 5 foot 4 inches, 115 pounds] but he's also the bravest."

Many of the players come from different countries, but Zenzano said he didn't have to look far in his preseason scouting. "Most of my players were here on a student visa in various private high schools," he said.

Luis Felipe Romero of El Salvador is one of the six players Zenzano recruited for his 1980 squad. Romero, a freshman right halfback, is the area's leading scorer, averaging a goal a game. Close behind Romero in goals per game is Jose Luis Catalan, also a freshman midfielder, who is from Mexico.

"Both [Romero and Catalan] have the potential to go on and become professionals with the proper guidance," said Zenzano. "But neither one of them is interested. They just want to finish school [where both are on scholarship] and play good soccer while they are here."

If the Firebirds continue to play as well as they have been playing, the team's hope of qualifying for the NCAA Division II playoffs will become reality. The team won eight of its first 10 games, and the eight wins included five shutouts, most recently over previously unbeaten University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

They'd also like to do well Sunday against Howard, traditionally one of the area's strongest soccer teams. And if they win, the natural reward would be obvious: maybe Zenzano will let his team sleep in for a day.