D.C. United has been waiting for this moment since the season began in March. There never really was any question of whether United would make the playoffs, barely a concern about its ability to earn home-field advantage.

After a sometimes uneventful regular season, the Major League Soccer playoffs finally have arrived for restless United, with its best-of-three Eastern Conference first-round series beginning at 7:30 tonight at RFK Stadium against the fourth-place Miami Fusion.

"It's a completely different season," Coach Thomas Rongen said, "and I think this team knows that. This team has been there, this team knows it's time to play for real now."

But United has not been playing well lately and needs to repair some trouble spots before it can start thinking about advancing to the title game for the fourth consecutive year. D.C. dropped two games to teams with losing records last week to close the regular season, and although nothing was at stake at the time, it was a disturbing fall for a team that had just won a franchise-record 11 straight league matches.

"This has been a good week," Rongen said. "We needed to rest our bodies and our souls, and we've really stepped things up the last few days. We're back where we need to be. We're bubbly, we're focused, we're in tune. You can tell, the way the players have responded, that we are ready."

This is the time of year that United thrives--a 14-3 postseason record overall, including 9-0 at home. Two of those three losses came last year: in Game 2 of the conference finals to Columbus and in the championship game against the Chicago Fire at the Rose Bowl.

But United's players said they cannot count on the past to secure success in the present.

"It's definitely an advantage--the experience factor," defender Jeff Agoos said. "Guys have been in this situation before and they know what it takes. But at the same time, you sometimes take it for granted and think that just because you have that experience and you've been successful it's going to continue. You've got to remember what got you to that point. Nothing is going to come easy this year."

Not even in the first round against a team that lost 19 of 32 games. United swept Miami in the same stage last year and won all four meetings during this regular season, but the Fusion played well in recent weeks to hold off New England to secure the final playoff spot.

Meantime, after wrapping up a playoff spot and home-field advantage by Labor Day, United got distracted by the CONCACAF Champions Cup in Las Vegas three weeks ago. Then, when it returned from that third-place finish, D.C. stumbled twice at home.

United, which has had to rely on reserves all season because of numerous absences, is now without only one starter: central defender Carlos Llamosa, who sprained a knee ligament last weekend against New England and is out for at least two weeks. Rongen will stick with a four-man defensive lineup, likely inserting Carey Talley into the middle next to Eddie Pope.

Captain Marco Etcheverry has a sore knee and initially was listed as questionable for tonight's game, but practiced four straight days and is expected to start.

Perhaps United's prime concern is taking advantage of its scoring opportunities. D.C. led the league in scoring, but in last week's loss to New England, its only score came on an own goal in the second minute.

Forward Roy Lassiter, MLS's all-time leading scorer, has been having the roughest time. Despite finishing the regular season tied for the league lead in goals with 18, Lassiter has connected just four times in his last 15 games in league play and 18 matches overall.

"It's time for everyone to start scoring goals," Agoos said. "It's time to get serious."

united vs. fusion

Where: RFK Stadium.

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: NewsChannel 8.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Tickets: $18-$38.

Records: United 23-9, 57 points; Fusion 13-19, 29 points.

D.C. Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Carey Talley, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos; MF -- Richie Williams, John Maessner, Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry; F -- Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter.

Fusion Top Players: MF-F Henry Gutierrez, F Eric Wynalda, MF Edwin Gorter, D Leo Cullen, F Welton.