Perhaps the simplest way for D.C. United to cope with the absence of four starters today against the Columbus Crew is to repeat this simple message: Get used to it.

United is entering a rugged stretch in which key players will miss several games because of national team commitments. Today, three hours before United kicks off at Crew Stadium in Columbus, forward Roy Lassiter, midfielder Richie Williams and defenders Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa will be in Washington for the United States' friendly match against Argentina at RFK Stadium.

United plans to be back at full strength for matches Wednesday at Dallas and Saturday against Los Angeles. But then Bolivian stars Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno depart for possibly six weeks to play for their national team in the Copa America tournament in Paraguay and the FIFA Confederations Cup in Mexico.

The U.S. national team also will compete in the Confederations Cup, meaning as many as six other players will leave for about three weeks.

"We've been preparing for this to happen," United Coach Thomas Rongen said. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but we think we have some players who are ready to step in and contribute."

Today's absences create only minor problems for Rongen, who has had to shift lineups regularly in recent weeks because of injuries and suspensions. The biggest challenge will be maintaining United's rhythm, which has spurred the team to six consecutive victories to stretch its Eastern Conference lead over the Crew to eight points in the standings.

Etcheverry, who leads the league in assists, returns today after serving a one-game suspension for accumulating yellow cards. In Etcheverry's absence Thursday, Moreno was superb as the playmaker during a 3-1 victory over the Miami Fusion at RFK.

"The boys will be fine without us," said Williams, whose defensive midfield position likely will be filled by Carey Talley. "We're in a system where it doesn't really matter who's in the game. Everyone knows how we want to play. Some of these young guys have shown they can play."

Columbus also has a shifting lineup. Forward Stern John, MLS's leading goal scorer last year, and defender Ansil Ancock have been with the Trinidad and Tobago national team for the Copa Caribe tournament and are not expected to return in time for today's match.

But standout forward Brian McBride, who has missed several weeks with a shattered cheekbone, appears ready to play again.

UNITED PREVIEW

Game: D.C. United

at Columbus.

Where: Crew Stadium.

When: 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Records: United 9-3, 23 points; Crew 7-4, 15 points.

United probable starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Eddie Pope, Brian Kamler; MF -- Geoff Aunger, Carey Talley, Jason Moore, Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry; F -- Jaime Moreno, A.J. Wood.

Crew top players: MF Thomas Dooley, F Brian McBride, F Jeff Cunningham, MF Andrew Williams, GK Mark Dougherty.