D.C. United rewarded Coach Thomas Rongen yesterday for maintaining the club's level of excellence, exercising the option years on his contract to retain him through the 2001 Major League Soccer season.

"I'm obviously happy to be in this position and with the knowledge that it's a long-term commitment, which is always nice," he said after practice at United Park. "Security is always nice in this business."

United (21-7) has won nine consecutive matches to equal a club record and on Sunday clinched the Eastern Conference regular season title for the third straight year.

Rongen replaced Bruce Arena, now the U.S. men's national team coach, last December and was given a one-year guaranteed contract. The deal also had two option years, which the club agreed it would decide whether to exercise this month.

Rongen's salary is believed to be about $200,000, although this year's earnings were structured uniquely because he still was being paid by the New England Revolution, which fired him last September.

"Once the season really got under way and he got settled in, it was pretty clear to me that we had made the right choice," United President and General Manager Kevin Payne said. "I was pretty confident beforehand, but just to be prudent we wanted the opportunity to look at things.

"I never thought [exercising the option years] would be an issue, and it wasn't."

Despite working without a full roster almost every week, Rongen has emerged as a candidate for MLS coach of the year honors along with Los Angeles' Sigi Schmid and Colorado's Glenn Myernick.

United has lost 103 man-games -- about four absences per match -- because of injuries, national team commitments and league suspensions for yellow and red cards.

All-star defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa have been available about half of the season only, 1998 league MVP Marco Etcheverry has missed nine games and defensive midfielder Richie Williams has been sidelined for eight matches.

Nonetheless, Rongen has molded a high-scoring and entertaining squad that is favored to win its third MLS title in four years. He also has the team playing well heading into the CONCACAF Champions Cup in two weeks, a tournament involving the top teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean that will send its winner to the world club championship in Brazil.

"I'm very proud to be here and very honored to be here," Rongen said. "We've faced a few obstacles, but things have turned out well so far."

With his contract settled, Rongen turned his full attention to Saturday night's game against the last-place New York/New Jersey MetroStars (6-22) at RFK Stadium. He received encouraging news concerning Pope, who missed last Friday's game in Tampa because of a sprained knee ligament and was thought to be out for at least another week.

Pope didn't practice with the full squad again yesterday, but has performed surprisingly well in fitness tests and may be able to play Saturday.

"It's better than expected," Pope said. "It's up to the coaches, but I want to try" to play.

If Pope plays, Rongen likely would have his top starting lineup in place for the first time since the second week of the season. Goalkeeper Tom Presthus, out last week with a sprained ankle, is expected to start and midfielder John Maessner (strained neck) probably will return.

United Notes: Midfielders Chris Albright and Antonio Otero, forward David Hayes and defender Judah Cooks will join MLS's developmental squad for an A-League playoff game against Minnesota this weekend and won't be available for the MetroStars match. . . . The club is lobbying the league to play its playoff opener on the night of Oct. 16 at RFK, but it probably will end up playing the next afternoon -- a Sunday -- because of network television commitments.