The way D.C. United General Manager Kevin Payne sees it, his current coach, Thomas Rongen, and former coach, Bruce Arena, approach soccer players in different ways. However, Payne says the coaches' approach to the game itself is very similar -- and to this point, they have produced similar results.

United will be three-quarters of the way through Rongen's first season in D.C. after tonight's 8 p.m. game against the Miami Fusion in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Three points from a nonshootout victory tonight would put the United (16-7, 40 points) in almost the same position it was in entering the final eight games of 1997 and 1998.

In 1997, United was 16-8 with 42 points going into the stretch run of the 32-game regular season; at the same point in 1998 United was 19-5 with 45 points.

"It's not surprising," Payne said. "This has been a little like the 1997 season, when we never played the same [starting] lineup twice in the season. But I don't think we have played anywhere near where we're capable of."

When it comes to coaching style, it's not surprising Rongen -- an Amsterdam native with nine seasons of head coaching experience -- would take a different path than Arena -- a Long Island guy who has been a head coach since 1978.

But on the field, United still wins with the attacking style of play Arena insisted on using. D.C. is the best road team in MLS at 9-3. And Rongen, like Arena, has produced victories while juggling lineups nearly every week as stars such as Marco Etcheverry, Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos miss games with national team commitments and injuries.

The bottom line is that United has the second-best record in the league and leads Columbus by five points in the Eastern Conference standings. It would take some work for D.C. to miss the playoffs -- Miami (22 points in 23 games) and Tampa Bay (22 points in 24 games) are third and fourth, respectively, in the conference.

"Thomas is more likely than Bruce to use technical terms when he's discussing what he wants out of the team, but that's more of [a difference] in the way they address things," Payne said. "Thomas has done a very, very good job with us this year -- exactly what I thought he would do."

As Rongen looks ahead to the final eight games, he mentions two things: health and defense. Defenders Carlos Llamosa and Diego Sonora and goalkeeper Tom Presthus are still hurt and will miss tonight's game, but could be back soon. Once they are, United will be at full strength for the first time since April.

Their return will help United tighten up its defense -- a problem spot collectively and individually, Rongen said.

"If you trace all of our goals [allowed], there are some where you have to take your hat off to the opponent and say, `Nice goal,' " Rongen said. "But I think we have lost focus at times, and we have been soft at times inside the 18-yard box. . . . We need to take more pride in our defense individually."

Against the Fusion, United will have to watch Brazilian forward Welton. Since he was traded to Miami from Los Angeles on June 1, he has four goals and three assists in 12 games.

D.C. UNITED PREVIEW

Game: vs. Miami Fusion

Where: Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

When: 8 p.m.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Records: D.C. 16-7, 40 points; Miami 10-13, 22 points.

D.C. probable starters: GK Mark Simpson, Ds Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos, Carey Talley, John Maessner; MFs Ben Olsen, Richie Williams, Marco Etcheverry, Geoff Aunger; Fs Roy Lassiter, Jaime Moreno.

Fusion top players: F Welton (4 goals, 4 assists); MF Henry Gutierrez 4 goals, 10 assists); D Leo Cullen.