D.C. United left RFK Stadium yesterday with a 3-2 shootout victory over Tampa Bay, but except for goalkeeper Tom Presthus's sensational performance and reserve forward A.J. Wood's late equalizer after a Mutiny ejection, United didn't have much to celebrate.

After taking an early 1-0 lead, United missed opportunities to expand the margin, fell behind in the second half and, perhaps most disturbing, its defense faltered throughout the rainy afternoon in front of 18,754.

United (14-7) needed Wood's header in the 85th minute--just six minutes after he entered--to get even and force a shootout. In the tiebreaker, Presthus made saves on the Mutiny's final two attempts and Wood, Roy Lassiter and Jaime Moreno converted their chances to secure a 3-2 edge.

"It's unfortunate" the game was decided in a shootout, said Wood, who set a career high with his sixth goal of the season. "We would have liked three points [in the standings for a win in regulation, as opposed to one in a shootout], but to be down with five minutes left and to come back is good for the team. We still should be getting three points at home. That's disappointing."

United captain Marco Etcheverry, playing for the first time in almost two months after Bolivian national team duty and a heel injury, scored in the 16th minute, but Tampa Bay forward Musa Shannon tied it with five minutes left in the half.

The Mutiny (9-13) dominated the first portion of the second half and forged a 2-1 lead on defender Steve Trittschuh's volley in the 52nd minute. Presthus's acrobatics prevented further damage as United lost its way.

But Trittschuh received a red card in the 73rd minute for tackling Moreno from behind, leaving his team with 10 players. Tampa Bay withstood one insurgence after another, before Wood met Etcheverry's swerving corner kick with a 10-yard downward header into the right corner.

The goal, however, did not end United's problems. Just a minute later, Presthus had to soar to his left to punch away Dominic Kinnear's rising shot, and with less than a minute remaining, Steve Ralston broke free and delivered a low cross that skipped dangerously through Presthus's six-yard box.

United was without injured defenders Carlos Llamosa and Diego Sonora, but all-stars Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope were in the lineup, as were capable defensive midfielders Richie Williams and Geoff Aunger. They had no trouble containing former United star Raul Diaz Arce, who had little impact, but Shannon, Ralston and Carlos Valderrama were troublesome.

"We're trying to put our finger on it," Presthus said of the team's breakdowns. "If you look at it, we have great individual defenders, but we're struggling in our team defending. . . . We need to figure it out by playoff time."

D.C. Coach Thomas Rongen said: "Defending is an area I'm concerned about right now. Tom kept us in the game at 2-2 and 2-1 as well. . . . We were soft in our aggressiveness and pursuit of the ball."

Better things were expected from United after its embarrassing 4-3 loss to the minor league Charleston (S.C.) Battery Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup. Rongen had said he expected his squad to show a greater hunger and focus yesterday--which it did to start the game.

Etcheverry nodded in Lassiter's lofty cross from six yards for his second goal of the season. Ben Olsen then placed two crosses from the right flank that Moreno just missed redirecting past goalie Scott Garlick.

The Mutiny soon found its rhythm, and Valderrama created the tying goal with a soft chip deep into the penalty area that Shannon headed while stationed between Pope and Agoos.

Tampa Bay's momentum carried into the second half, with Trittschuh volleying from close range following Kinnear's cross and Shannon's touch near the right post. Four United defenders stood flat-footed as Trittschuh connected easily.

Said Pope: "We've got to do better than that."

United Notes: Negotiations are expected to resume soon between MLS and the D.C. Sports Commission about extending United's lease at RFK, which expires after this season. The current proposal is for a five-year extension. . . .

Team officials also expect to hear soon whether RFK will be the site of the 2000 MLS championship game. Tampa's Raymond James Stadium is the other finalist.