It was supposed to be a coronation of sorts, an inevitable celebration on a pretty night before a large, noisy crowd at RFK Stadium. D.C. United had pulled together its strongest starting lineup for the first time in more than five months and was attempting to set a club record for consecutive victories against the hapless New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

Instead, the match was littered with United defensive mistakes, wayward shooting, poor passing and to the amazement of 21,463 spectators, nearly a seemingly inconceivable loss.

United, however, escaped in a tiebreaking shootout, 2-1, for its 10th consecutive victory last night. Defender Jeff Agoos clinched it by slipping his attempt under goalkeeper Mike Ammann in the fifth round. D.C. goalie Tom Presthus made three saves in the shootout, which United won by a 2-1 score.

"We definitely dodged bullets," defender Eddie Pope said. "That's the only good thing to say about it. We gave away the ball in midfield and we gave away the ball in defense. Not a good night."

Jaime Moreno scored his 10th goal of the year for United (22-7) late in the first half, but Peter Villegas sneaked in front of Agoos for the equalizer three minutes after halftime. The remainder of regulation was highlighted by Ammann and Presthus, who each made several breathtaking saves, and United's mounting frustration.

United hasn't lost in more than two months, surpassing the nine-game streak it assembled last year. But unlike several performances during this current run, there was little to enjoy about last night's close call.

Coach Thomas Rongen had wanted his club to use the MetroStars game and next weekend's encounter at Western Conference-leading Los Angeles to tune up for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which begins in nine days in Las Vegas. Instead, he received an unbalanced effort.

"These are things we can't afford when we play against competition in CONCACAF," he said, referring to the tournament involving North America's top teams that will send the winner to the world championships in Brazil. "It's a lesson to be learned."

United had won as many games in the past month as the MetroStars (6-23) had all season. But New York/New Jersey controlled play for long stretches and tormented United with the skilled work of Villegas, defender Ramiro Corrales and forwards Henry Zambrano and Eduardo Hurtado.

Despite the gap in talent, the MetroStars found ample space between United's confused defenders and had several near-misses. Only Presthus's acrobatics prevented United from falling behind.

Ammann was equally spectacular, making numerous sprawling saves in the second half, including a gem on reserve A.J. Wood's rocket with 45 seconds remaining.

From the start, the MetroStars were content to defend and wait to counterattack, a conservative tactic that worked. Zambrano's 17-yard shot skipped fractionally wide of the left post in the 23rd minute and Hurtado drilled a powerful, 10-yard header off the crossbar six minutes later. Late in the half, Presthus foiled a counterattack by deflecting a clear shot by the hard-charging Hurtado.

United finally solved the MetroStars' defense in the 42nd minute when Ben Olsen slipped a pass inside the penalty area to Moreno for a low, eight-yarder that beat a diving Ammann.

The MetroStars evened it early in the second half on Villegas's goal. Corrales delivered a sharp cross deep into the penalty area, where Agoos eased up as the ball approached the six-yard box. Villegas stepped in front of him and tapped the ball past the startled Presthus.

"There's no excuse for this game," Moreno said. "We didn't play well as a team."

United Notes: It won't affect the club until next season, but United has learned what days Moreno and Marco Etcheverry will be away for Bolivia's 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign. Bolivia opens on March 28 or 29, 2000, at Uruguay and will play about every four weeks through November 2000 before taking a break and re-starting in March 2001 for the final eight of its 18 qualifiers. . . .

MetroStars rookie defender Kevin Knight, a graduate of Robinson High School and James Madison University, made his seventh start of the season last night.