D.C. United Coach Thomas Rongen encountered an unfamiliar sight on United's practice field yesterday, something he hasn't seen in more than five months: his starting lineup in its entirety. No one on national team duty. No one practicing with the reserves because of a league-imposed suspension. No one on the sideline rehabilitating a sore hamstring or ailing knee.
"It's been a very, very long time," Rongen said with a smile. "It's about time."
The final piece of United's 11-man puzzle fell into place yesterday when all-star defender Eddie Pope was cleared to start tonight against the New York/New Jersey MetroStars at RFK Stadium after missing last week's game in Tampa with a sprained knee.
United, which has won nine straight games, is one victory shy of a club record. The league mark is held by the Los Angeles Galaxy, who won 15 straight bridging the 1997 and '98 regular seasons.
While United has not lost since July 10, the last-place MetroStars (6-22) are coming off their first victory -- 2-1 at Columbus last weekend -- in 2 1/2 months and their first win in regulation in nearly four months.
United officials had feared that Pope would miss at least another game, but he improved steadily during the week and showed no discomfort during yesterday's workout. Also returning tonight will be goalkeeper Tom Presthus (sprained ankle) and midfielder John Maessner (strained neck).
The timing couldn't be better for United, which not only is gearing up for the Major League Soccer playoffs next month, but also for the CONCACAF Champions Cup in Las Vegas, which begins in 10 days. The winner of that tournament, involving the top teams in North America, will advance to the world club championship in Brazil and earn an estimated $1.5 million.
Rongen is hoping the rash of injuries is behind United, but with the Champions Cup and four regular season games remaining, he's not counting on it.
"We have a deep team and we've been successful with numerous injuries, including Eddie's, but I'm sure before it's said and done, we'll have another one," he said. "We hope not, but that's the nature of the beast in a very competitive environment and in a league where I think we're playing too many games in too short an amount of time. We're really putting a strain on these athletes. I'm sure that has something to do with it."
Pope, who missed about two months with a broken foot, also has been sidelined by hamstring and knee injuries. Combined with U.S. national team duty, he has played in only 15 of United's 28 matches this season.
Is he worried about another injury?
"I think about it a little bit," he said. "Sometimes I think to myself, `Hmmm, be careful here, be careful there.' It's been like a chain reaction that is sometimes hard to stop."
With everyone available, key role players such as midfielder Geoff Aunger and defender Carey Talley won't receive as much playing time. Their unexpected contributions, along with those of forward A.J. Wood and goalkeeper Mark Simpson, were critical to United (21-7) securing its third-straight Eastern Conference regular season title.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed, but I was lucky enough to get my chance," said Aunger, who has started 23 games and is fourth on the team in minutes played. "We've reached an important time for the team, and whatever Thomas thinks is best is what we've got to go with."
United's present challenge is to establish an effective chemistry among players who have been in and out of the lineup.
"Can we play well together, can we get used to each other and how quickly can we do it?" Pope said. "It's very important for us to get a rhythm and when you get that rhythm, your confidence is going to rise and everything starts going well for you."
FIRE 2, MUTINY 1: Chicago slipped into second place in the Western Conference after beating Tampa Bay in a seven-round shootout before 15,114 at Soldier Field.
The defending champion Fire (16-12, 44 points) moved ahead of the Colorado Rapids (17-9, 43 points), who host the first-place Los Angeles Galaxy (18-9, 48) tonight. The Mutiny (13-16, 29) has lost two straight but remains in third place in the Eastern Conference, six points ahead of Miami.
The Mutiny, which had a four-game winning streak stopped by United last week, took the lead in the 10th minute on a goal by Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama. The Fire evened the match in the 32nd minute on a goal by Polish midfielder Peter Nowak, who redirected Roman Kosecki's shot.
The Fire had a golden chance to go ahead in the 79th minute, but Lubos Kubik missed a penalty kick. Chicago had lost five of its previous six shootouts.
D.C. UNITED PREVIEW
Game: vs. New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Where: RFK Stadium.
When: 7:30 p.m.
TV: NewsChannel 8.
Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).
Records: United 21-7, 53 points; MetroStars 6-22, 12 points.
D.C. Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Eddie Pope, Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos; MF -- Richie Williams, John Maessner, Ben Olsen (five goals, 10 assists), Marco Etcheverry (4, 17); F -- Jaime Moreno (9, 13), Roy Lassiter (17, 11).
MetroStars Top Players: F Eduardo Hurtado (6 goals, 2 assists), F Henry Zambrano, GK Mike Ammann, D Mohammad Khakpour.