Back in April, when he hadn't eaten in five days, had a fever of 105 degrees and the doctors had no idea what was wrong, Tom Presthus had every right to be scared. He was nervous about the virus that was turning his stomach into a chemistry experiment, but that wasn't his biggest concern. What really had him sleepless was the prospect of losing his job as the starting goalkeeper for D.C. United.

United seemingly had made Presthus, 24, its undisputed top keeper when Scott Garlick was traded to Tampa Bay in January. But as Presthus lost 15 pounds and a week of training with the unidentified virus, he wasn't so sure.

"It wasn't like a sprained ankle where you know how long you'll be out, you know?" Presthus said. "You never want to lose your spot, because you never know when you'll get it back."

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Presthus, who ate ice cream every night to gain the weight back, has recovered to post a 10-3 record this season and a 0.97 goals-against average.

"He's one of the most imposing goalkeepers in the league," said MetroStars goalkeeping coach Tim Mulqueen. "He narrows the goal with his size."

Growing up in Edina, Minn., Presthus always played soccer, but he liked hockey better. But one day when he was 13, he was checked hard during a hockey game and blacked out. His first and second vertebrae had separated and had to be fused together. After the surgery, he was pressed to leave the contact sports behind.

So he chose soccer. Years later, his mother, Linda, was driving by Southern Methodist University and stopped to tell the soccer coach, Schellas Hyndman, to check out her son, who was a senior at Edina High. "And within five minutes of seeing him play, I knew we had to have him," Hyndman said.

Four years later, Presthus was selected by United in the second round of the 1997 draft. In his first start, he made a diving stop on a Columbus penalty kick to ensure a 3-2 victory. In 1998, Presthus was picked as the starter for the playoffs, and when Garlick was traded a few months later, Presthus figured the starter's role was his to lose. And by getting sick, he fretted he might do just that.

"To get there, and then to get this virus and to not know how long I'd have it has helped me appreciate the position I'm in even more," Presthus said.

United already has played several games without some of its top defenders, thanks to injuries and national team commitments. And that will continue this season -- so United is counting on Presthus to be more vocal.

"If you're letting the ball go through your legs, and you're telling people where they need to be, they're going to" become upset, United goalkeeper coach Allen Kelly said. Presthus's "communication skills are better, but you need to back that up with good play, which he has done."

Everything in Presthus's life seems more comfortable. When he was 11 and vacationing in Miami, he met a girl named Melissa Kittner and played soccer with her on the beach. In 1994, when they were both star soccer players at SMU, he reintroduced himself to her, and she remembered him from the beach. The two are planning to marry Dec. 4.

Presthus also has a grocery list of superstitions. He eats the same meal (chicken with mashed potatoes), listens to the same song ("Brass Monkey," by the Beastie Boys), and puts on his uniform the same way before every home game.

"I don't know if [being superstitious] does any good, but -- not to say I've been playing well -- but I could be doing a lot worse," Presthus said. "Being the starter means a lot. I think everything that I have to learn will come from repetition."

UNITED PREVIEW

Game: vs. Los Angeles Galaxy.

Where: RFK Stadium.

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: None.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Tickets: $13-$34.

Records: United 10-4, 26 points; Galaxy 7-6, 15 points.

D.C. Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Jeff Agoos, Brian Kamler; MF -- Richie Williams, Geoff Aunger, Antonio Otero, Jason Moore, Ben Olsen; F -- A.J. Wood, Roy Lassiter.

Galaxy Top Players: F Carlos Hermosillo, MF Cobi Jones, MF Mauricio Cienfuegos, D Robin Fraser, F Clint Mathis.