D.C. United figured it would need another week to clinch its third consecutive regular season title in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.

Instead, United sealed it yesterday, thanks to the woeful New York/New Jersey MetroStars, who ended a 12-game losing streak by jolting D.C.'s closest pursuer, the Columbus Crew, 2-1.

"It's nice to get it out of the way," United President and General Manager Kevin Payne said. "We took a lot of motivation from [the media] and a lot of people around the league who said Columbus would win the East. It bothered us a little bit. Everyone thought things were going to change, but they really haven't."

Meanwhile, all-star defender Eddie Pope is almost certain to miss United's game against the MetroStars Saturday at RFK Stadium because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Pope, who was hurt while playing for the U.S. national team last week in Jamaica, sat out last Friday's 2-1 victory at Tampa Bay -- United's ninth consecutive win, tying a club record.

"We were optimistic, but I'd be very surprised if he can play Saturday," Coach Thomas Rongen said. "We'll see how he progresses, but if he's not better by Wednesday, he may need an MRI [exam]."

Earlier this year Pope missed about two months with a broken foot.

If United (21-7, 53 points) loses its four remaining matches and the Crew (16-11, 38 points) wins its last five, the teams would finish tied. But United would win the first tiebreaker -- head-to-head results -- by virtue of sweeping the four-game season series.

As the conference's top seed, United will play the fourth-place team in the first round of the playoffs, which begin Oct. 16 and conclude Nov. 21 with MLS Cup '99 at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium. Miami leads New England by a point in the race for fourth place.

"Winning the conference was our goal all along, but now that we have it, we don't plan on sitting back and resting," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "We're going to keep going forward. There's still a championship to win."

With the conference race out of the way, Rongen can begin preparing his team not only for the MLS playoffs, but also for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which starts in two weeks in Las Vegas. The winner of that tournament, involving eight pro teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean, advances to the inaugural world club championship in Brazil in January.

Except for Pope's likely absence, United has a healthy roster and a seemingly secure starting lineup. But Rongen has said his club still needs to polish its overall play and organize its defense better.

Friday's victory was United's sixth straight on the road and improved its away record to an MLS-best 12-3. After Saturday's game against the MetroStars, United will play at Western Conference-leading Los Angeles on Sept. 25.

METROSTARS 2, CREW 1: Henry Zambrano scored the go-ahead goal in the 86th minute as visiting New York/New Jersey (6-22, 12 points) won for the first time since June 30.

Zambrano scored the winning goal after dribbling 30 yards up the middle of the field, turning around defender Todd Yeagley and blasting a shot from 10 yards past onrushing goalkeeper Mark Dougherty.

Zambrano helped set up the game's first goal in the 38th minute on a give-and-go with Eduardo Hurtado. Zambrano passed to Hurtado, who scored from 20 yards.

Columbus tied the game five minutes later. Mike Clark played a ball out of the back to Brian West, who passed to Brian McBride for a shot past goalkeeper Mike Ammann from five yards.