D.C. United and defender Diego Sonora have resolved an ill-timed contract dispute in time for him to start in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday against the Columbus Crew.

Sonora said he decided to remain with the club throughout the Major League Soccer playoffs. However, the Argentine veteran still has not re-signed for next season and probably won't return.

"I will play against Columbus," Sonora said yesterday at United Park. "I am happy. I want to stay."

Sonora also said that his South American-based agent, Ruben Morales, will meet with MLS officials Saturday in perhaps a last-ditch attempt to negotiate a contract for next season and beyond. If a deal can't be reached, Sonora said he will return to Argentina and try to find a club there or in Mexico.

A new deal is "between him and the league, and right now it doesn't seem like he's very interested in the offer," said United President and General Manager Kevin Payne, who already has begun a preliminary search for a replacement to fill Sonora's foreign-player slot on the roster.

All MLS player contracts are owned and primarily negotiated by the league, not the individual teams. Sonora said the league has asked him to take a 40 percent pay cut to remain in MLS.

United Coach Thomas Rongen is just happy to have one less personnel problem heading into the conference finals. Midfielder Richie Williams must sit out Game 1 after receiving a red card in the previous game, defender Carlos Llamosa (sprained knee ligament) remains questionable and forward Chris Albright is out for two to three months after tearing a knee ligament in practice Tuesday.

"You hate to see a player leave at this juncture," Rongen said of Sonora. "He's a very integral part of this team and also a player we obviously enjoy and respect. We didn't force the issue. We really felt Diego needed to make that choice. It's something we had to deal with, and it's worked out okay for everyone."

Sonora's contract was due to expire this weekend because in past years, the MLS season had ended by the end of October. According to Payne, Sonora signed a document during the summer extending his contract through November in case United's season continued. Sonora said that he didn't sign anything. Nonetheless, when the issue arose again recently, United honored Sonora's request to leave this week so he could find a new team.

But with Mexico's signing period closed and his options elsewhere limited at the moment, Sonora decided to stay with United.

Llamosa, who did not play in the first-round series against Miami, returned to practice this week, but his participation has been limited by the medical staff.

"His limitations right now are striking the ball at a distance and tackling, and for a defender, that's a heck of a limitation," Rongen said. "But we've got three more days to get ready. We'll take it day by day and make a game-time decision. I really feel he's going to be ready. He wants to play, but if he can't, we're not going to push him."

Meanwhile, Albright is aiming to return in January when the U.S. Olympic team begins full-time training. The injury occurred when he and Curt Onalfo slid for the ball, and "I had a bad angle and we both jammed the ball," said Albright. "The impact just threw my knee and tore it."

Albright's absence hurts Rongen's depth, particularly on the midfield flanks. Ben Olsen and John Maessner probably will start there against Columbus, but Rongen's options for second half substitutes are limited to rookie Jason Moore and Sonora.

United Notes: Olsen and forward Jaime Moreno were given the day off to recuperate from minor injuries, but both are expected to practice today. . . .

Sunil Gulati, the former MLS commissioner who is overseeing New England's coaching search, said that United assistant Dave Sarachan is among many candidates under consideration for the New England job.