With its Bolivian stars settling their nerves in South America after a harrowing plane ride, its star defender awaiting an MRI exam and its top scorer quieted again, D.C. United turned to secondary players tonight to stretch its first-place lead.

Forward A.J. Wood scored in the first half and goalkeeper Tom Presthus made several outstanding saves to boost United to a 2-1 shootout victory over second-place Columbus before 18,101 at the Crew's cozy new stadium.

Presthus made four excellent stops in regulation, including one with less than two minutes remaining, to force the tiebreaker. He then stopped all four shots in the shootout. United (12-6, 30 points) moved seven points ahead of the Crew (11-6) in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference. Shootout goals by Jeff Agoos and Brian Kamler were all United needed to clinch its third straight victory over Columbus and halt the Crew's four-game winning streak.

United accomplished the victory despite defender Carlos Llamosa's red card in the 75th minute and the absence of three dynamic players.

"A very gutty performance from our team," Coach Thomas Rongen said. "We knew this would be a tough game for us. . . . I'm happy the way we stuck together after the red card."

Playmaker Marco Etcheverry and forward Jaime Moreno have been on Bolivian national team duty and are expected to return in time for Saturday's home game against Colorado. Over the weekend, while traveling between venues at Copa America in Paraguay, Bolivia and three other teams were on a plane that had trouble on its approach and reportedly clipped treetops before coming to a jarring stop.

United President and General Manager Kevin Payne said he had an agreement with the Bolivian soccer federation for the duo to return this week, but the players apparently are being pressured to stay and prepare for the Confederations Cup in Mexico late this month. Payne said he would file a complaint with international officials if his players aren't released.

Meanwhile, defender Eddie Pope, who missed about two months with a broken foot, sat out tonight's game after straining his left knee last Sunday against San Jose. He plans to have an MRI exam Thursday and, if all is well, return to the lineup Saturday.

MLS leading scorer Roy Lassiter (14 goals) was quiet most of the night. He has gone scoreless in two straight games and clearly misses Etcheverry's ball distribution.

United managed just two shots in the first half, but both were serious threats. In the 16th minute, Pope's replacement, Carey Talley, headed Agoos's curling free kick off the left post, and 11 minutes later, Wood found the target for the second straight week.

Lassiter touched the ball back to Geoff Aunger, who lifted a high ball into the penalty area. Wood ran to it and appeared to bring it down with his left arm or shoulder before stinging a 10-yard shot past goalkeeper Mark Dougherty.

"I've been known to have a soft collarbone, so I guess it hit my collarbone," Wood said. "To be honest, I'm not sure what happened."

Presthus thwarted the Crew several times. In a one-minute span early in the match, he made a reflex save on Robert Warzycha's half-volley and smothered Stern John's bid in a one-on-one situation. Late in the half, he dived to stop Thomas Dooley's header.

But John tied it 11 minutes into the second half with his ninth goal of the season -- a physical encounter with Presthus in which he nodded Brian Maisonneuve's pass before the goalie could punch it away.

Llamosa was sent off with about 15 minutes left when he challenged John with a slide tackle from behind near the midfield circle. In addition to the expulsion, he must sit out Saturday's game.

Presthus rescued United with a lunging save on Jeff Cunningham's hard bid in the 89th minute. As time expired, Crew Coach Tom Fitzgerald began yelling at United's Richie Williams, who, Fitzgerald said, impeded a last-second throw-in. An angry Rongen then approached Fitzgerald, a longtime friend, along the sideline.

"I felt that [Fitzgerald] really went after Richie and verbally abused him," Rongen said. "I had to defend my player."

United Notes: In comfortable standing at their respective positions in fan balloting, Presthus, Pope, Agoos, Etcheverry, Lassiter and Ben Olsen are expected to be named starters for the Eastern Conference all-star team Thursday. The reserves, who will be named Friday, likely will include Moreno.