D.C. United forward A.J. Wood has this theory about good things happening to him in the fourth year of a soccer program.

In 1990, as a senior at Georgetown Prep in Rockville, he scored an astonishing 36 goals to lead the Little Hoyas to a conference championship. In 1994, in his final season at the University of Virginia, he set a school record with 23 goals and helped the Cavaliers win a fourth consecutive NCAA title.

Now, with his fourth team in his fourth season in Major League Soccer, Wood finally has found a home in his home town. He has scored in five of United's past six league games to increase his season goal total to a career-high seven, second on D.C.'s talent-rich roster behind Roy Lassiter, the MLS leader with 15.

"Things have finally started to come around for me," Wood, 26, said yesterday. "Maybe it's the law of averages for forwards. But I think it's been a lot of hard work, a little luck and some good teammates around me."

Wood probably will enter as a second-half substitute today when United plays its closest pursuer in the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Crew, at RFK Stadium. United has 37 standings points to the Crew's 32, but Columbus has played one fewer game than D.C. has.

Wood's emergence has followed three unspectacular MLS seasons during which he scored 13 goals in 69 games for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, the Crew and United. He was a member of the Chicago Fire for a short time before the 1998 season before D.C. acquired him for midfielder Jesse Marsch.

The perception around the league was that Wood was an adequate reserve, but out of place and relatively ineffective as a starter. That has changed dramatically this year. He has made an impact as a reserve throughout the year, and when United has been missing players because of national team commitments, Coach Thomas Rongen has been able to count on him as a starter.

"If you looked at his statistics over the last three years, you figured he'd contribute somewhat, but not to the extent he has this year," Rongen said. "On the other hand, based on what I saw during the offseason and on talking to him about what his role was and where he would fit in, it led me to believe that he would have his best season ever."

After getting only three starts and three goals last year, Wood has appeared in 17 of 22 games this season -- 10 as a starter. His recent hot stretch has consisted of first-half goals against San Jose and Columbus and a second-half strike against Colorado as a starter; a dramatic tying goal last Sunday against Tampa Bay six minutes after entering as a substitute; and the final goal in Wednesday night's 4-1 victory at New York/New Jersey, eight minutes after entering the game.

He also scored a go-ahead goal in the 84th minute of a 4-3 overtime loss to Charleston in the U.S. Open Cup last week.

"This year, I knew there would be a period of time when I could play," Wood said, referring to the games when teammates such as Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry and Ben Olsen would be absent. "My season was going to begin in the summer. That drove me and motivated me to work hard and be ready."

The prime asset of the 6-foot-2 Wood is his play in the air. But he has improved his play with his feet and has become a threat to score from almost anywhere in the penalty area.

With United back at full strength for the last stage of the regular season, Wood has returned to his reserve role. He said he would like to start, but doesn't mind providing a late-game lift.

"You have to get something done right away -- and that's not the easiest way to make a living," he said. "It takes patience. You have to stay focused on what's happening in the game and always be ready whether your team is up a goal, down a goal or tied. Obviously, I'd prefer to start, but [being a reserve] is my role right now and I'm ready to handle it."

D.C. UNITED PREVIEW

Game: vs. Columbus Crew.

Where: RFK Stadium.

When: 4 p.m.

TV: WJLA-7, WMAR-2.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Tickets: $13-$34.

Records: United 15-7, 37 points; Crew 14-7, 32 points.

D.C. probable starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Eddie Pope, Carey Talley, Jeff Agoos; MF -- Richie Williams, John Maessner, Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry; F -- Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter (15 goals, 8 assists).

Crew top players: F Stern John (13, 2), F Brian McBride, D Thomas Dooley, MF Brian Maisonneuve, GK Mark Dougherty.