It may not be fair, but Jeff Agoos's failures are almost as well-known as his successes.

Agoos was a key contributor in D.C. United's three consecutive trips to the MLS championship, and is probably the best left-side defender American soccer has produced in the 1990s. But he's also the defender who misplayed the ball against Jamaica in a 1997 World Cup qualifier to all but concede the tying goal. He just missed making the 1994 World Cup team (he was the last player cut by then-coach Bora Milutinovic), and he was one of two U.S. players on the roster who didn't play a minute in the 1998 World Cup.

Agoos -- who leads United into tonight's showdown with Western Conference-leading Colorado in Denver -- may not be happy to be remembered for his struggles. But he admits that like many top-level defenders, he's had his ugly moments.

"When I started out in the pros, I played indoor [soccer] in Dallas," Agoos said. "The first time I touched the ball, I thought I had a load of time, like I would outdoors. A guy stripped me of the ball, went downfield and scored."

That was in 1992, with the Dallas Sidekicks. In the seven years since, Agoos, 31, has made mistakes that are remembered because they led to goals. But his consistency has helped him return to the U.S. national team's starting lineup, and he played well in four games in the Confederations Cup in Mexico.

D.C. United General Manager Kevin Payne calls Agoos the league's best defender this season; national team coach Bruce Arena, who also coached Agoos at the University of Virginia and with D.C. United, says the top three are Agoos, Chicago's Lubos Kubik and Los Angeles's Robin Fraser.

A commitment to fitness has helped Agoos. He played four straight games for the United States in Mexico; the only other U.S. player to play four consecutively at the Confederations Cup was Frankie Hejduk.

"He played well, and we almost killed him out there," Arena said. "That is one of the reasons why Jeff has maintained or even improved his level of play -- he's fit enough to do that."

On Aug. 18, Agoos was the only U.S. player to participate in the Nelson Mandela Farewell Game in Johannesburg, playing 90 minutes for the world all-star team.

"It wasn't easy for us to let him go, but it was recognition that he deserves," Payne said. "I think through a variety of circumstances, Jeff got the short end of the stick a few times and probably has not received the recognition he deserves."

One of the toughest moments for Agoos came in the spring of 1998, when after starting almost every game for the United States in qualifying, then-coach Steve Sampson added left back David Regis to the team. While Agoos sat, Regis started all three games for the United States in France.

Agoos says his play this season has served as vindication for the events of last year. But since the start of his career, Agoos has shown the ability to carry on after taking knocks and making mistakes, on and off the field.

Agoos said he learned the lesson that helps the most in 1994, when he was cut from the World Cup team.

"In my year and a half with Bora, I grew as a player more than any time in my life," Agoos said. "I remember he asked the team, `What is the most important thing in soccer?' Guys answered things like scoring and defense. Bora said, `The most important thing is the next play.' I'll never forget that. That's stuck with me through all the hard times and all the good times."

United Notes: Forward Roy Lassiter is expected to start tonight after sitting out Wednesday's 3-1 victory over Miami with a red card. Midfielders Ross Paule and Paul Bravo should return from injuries to join the Rapids' lineup.

UNITED PREVIEW

Game: vs. Colorado Rapids.

Where: Mile High Stadium.

When: 9 p.m.

TV: NewsChannel 8.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Records: D.C. 18-7, 44 points; Colorado 16-7, 42 points.

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

Rapids top players: Fs Jorge Dely Valdes (9 goals, 6 assists) and Wolde Harris (8 goals, 8 assists) and MF Paul Bravo (7 goals, 4 assists).