Hanging in the air like the mist over the parade route of presidents on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday--above the mariachi band in the pickup truck, and the girls screaming for autographs from El Diablo and La Bomba, and the soccer moms pushing strollers--was a question.

Will this finally do the trick?

Will three national titles in four years shatter the apathy? Will Washingtonians sit up and recognize that actual champions walk among them (unlike certain high-paid repeat losers that one could name)--and will the fans respond with appropriate mass adulation?

The management of the D.C. United soccer team wasn't taking any chances. For the 10-block victory parade after the team's championship Sunday, the players rode in tourist trolley cars. Beneath each window was affixed a poster with the name of the player in that seat, like labels for a display of an almost extinct species: Victor Washingtonianus.

It was a precaution, just in case people along the parade route did not recognize Marco Etcheverry (El Diablo), Jaime Moreno (La Bomba), Roy Lassiter, Ben Olsen, Eddie Pope and the rest of the team that rules Major League Soccer as the Green Bay Packers once dominated the National Football League.

But the few thousand who turned out for the parade needed no cue cards. Many have been following the team since the league was formed four years ago, and United is a personal passion for them.

"We never had a team in our area, and now we have the best," said Hector Mendizabal, 38, of Mount Rainier and before that Guatemala, who brought his son Dennis, 3. "It's exciting, man!"

The soccer heroes--young, lean and not-that-tall--were accessible to anyone who approached. They smiled, shook hands, signed jerseys, and there was no hyperventilating crush around them. This is a sign, of course, that soccer has not yet arrived and Washington doesn't yet know what it has.

"Hey, Goose, great game, man!" Mike Lastort, 37, of Takoma Park, said to star Jeff Agoos, and Goose said, "Hey!"

Lastort fell in love with soccer when he was living in Germany a decade ago. And oooohh, Lastort and his cohorts could tell you, this day was so sweet for Washington soccer fans. After all, a small chip rests on every U.S. soccer fan's shoulder. The media, the masses, still don't get it. Not enough attention is paid! The turnout for the parade was not bad for a gray workday in a holiday week, but still.

"It would be nice if there would be teeming thousands like when the Redskins win," Lastort said, "but when was the last time that happened?"

Seven years ago.

This was the delicious subtext of the day, beneath the high school marching band sounds thumping like rocks off the downtown office buildings. Everybody was thinking about winning and losing, and the strange ingredients of sports celebrity in America.

Hello, MCI Center. . . . Any winners in there? Helloooo? Yo, FedEx Field. . . . Where has all the greatness gone?

But there's something else about the winning home team that matters. The name is not Washington United, it's D.C. United. Washington is the buttoned-down name that the world knows from datelines. D.C. is the local shorthand of residents. D.C. United, champions of an international sport, are ambassadors for the real city, the D.C. of neighborhoods and diverse working people, even the D.C. of the suburbs.

"You named your team D.C.!" thundered Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton at the post-parade rally at Freedom Plaza, and the crowd's answering cheer echoed off the once-and-future city hall being refurbished across the street.

Perhaps the most important voice all morning was that of the next generation, one that is paying more attention, represented by Anna Goldman, 12, Carrie Tucker, 12, and Lauryn Burkhalter, 13, soccer players all, from Arlington, commenting on why United is "awesome."

"One, they're the home team," said Anna. "Two, they're the best."

"Three," cut in Carrie, "they're cute."

CAPTION: Many of those who attended the parade have made the team a personal passion since the league was formed four years ago.

CAPTION: At left, Marco Etcheverry--"El Diablo"--brandishes the team trophy while greeting the crowd at Freedom Plaza. Among the faithful was Mike Simons, 34, of Arlington, above.

CAPTION: D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams joins the celebration at Freedom Plaza.