A week after defeating Major League Soccer's defending champions without central injured defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa, D.C. United will have to make a repeat performance tonight at RFK Stadium against its closest pursuer in the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Crew.

Pope and Llamosa said yesterday they will not play tonight, and Llamosa's sore left ankle may jeopardize his chance to play for the U.S. national team against Argentina next weekend.

Despite returning to practice this week from a broken right foot, Pope will miss his sixth consecutive United game. "It's getting better, but it's still a little weak," Pope said, adding he hopes to play one half against the Miami Fusion on Thursday at RFK.

Llamosa, who sprained his ankle and left knee last week, will sit out for the second straight weekend. An MRI exam Thursday detected no cartilage damage to the knee, but his ankle still is giving him trouble.

United trainer Rick Guter has told U.S. Coach Bruce Arena he doesn't want Llamosa to practice with the national team. Llamosa's ankle "is not as mobile as we'd like it to be," Guter said. "I told Bruce I don't want Carlos to train with him. I told him it wasn't a good idea and that he can't compete at that level right now. But if he makes some progress, he may be available for him toward the end of [next] week."

Arena's training camp opens Monday morning at United Park, and the U.S. team plays Argentina June 13 at RFK. Arena lost two defenders to injuries this week -- David Regis (knee) and Mike Burns (hamstring) -- and Pope, a 1998 World Cup starter, was ruled out several weeks ago.

With Pope and Llamosa still out of United's lineup, D.C. Coach Thomas Rongen said he will use the same starting defensive alignment he did for last week's 3-1 victory over the defending champion Chicago Fire: Brian Kamler at left back, Jeff Agoos in the middle, Diego Sonora on the right and Richie Williams and Geoff Aunger at defensive midfield.

"I thought we did a good job," Rongen said. "In a few areas, we still gave three or four very good opportunities away and [goalkeeper Tom Presthus] had to come up big. If we can eliminate that, we're going to be a very tough team to beat."

United (7-3, 17 points) gave its best all-around performance of the season last week in beating the Fire for its fourth consecutive victory and moving into first place ahead of Columbus (7-3, 15 points) in the Eastern Conference.

The Crew has never won at RFK in nine meetings, but it appears to have the talent to challenge United for the conference title. Columbus is without star forward Brian McBride, who suffered a broken cheekbone in a collision last month, but it has dangerous forwards Jeff Cunningham (four goals, one assist) and Stern John (three goals, one assist).

Soccer Notes: United continues to await the arrival of Peruvian rookie Jose Alegria, whose immigration papers have not been approved. United and the 18-year-old midfielder have acquired the help of Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.), according to United President and General Manager Kevin Payne. The club hopes to receive more information on Alegria's status next week. . . . Former United midfielder Tony Sanneh, who signed with German club Hertha Berlin during the offseason, and University of Virginia forward Chris Albright practiced with United yesterday. Both arrived in town early for the U.S. team training camp. . . . According to Argentine media reports, superstar Ariel Ortega injured his leg this week and will not be available for the game against the United States.

Game: vs. Columbus Crew.

Where: RFK Stadium, 7:30 p.m.

TV: WJLA-7.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Tickets: $13-$34.

D.C. Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Jeff Agoos, Brian Kamler; MF -- Richie Williams, Geoff Aunger, Jason Moore, Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry; F -- Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter.

Crew Top Players: F Stern John, F Jeff Cunningham, MF Brian Maisonneuve, D Thomas Dooley, GK Mark Dougherty.