D.C. United finds itself in a familiar situation against a customary opponent today at RFK Stadium. For the fourth consecutive year, United has advanced to Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference finals and for the third straight time, the Columbus Crew stands in its way.

But unlike previous autumn showdowns between these teams, there is a sense around the league that the confident Crew is ready to end United's suffocating grip on the conference title.

"Everyone wanted D.C. to win" its first-round playoff series last week, Columbus defender Mike Lapper said. "We didn't want Miami to win because we definitely wanted to prove ourselves [against United]. This is the best chance we've had. We wanted them so bad."

In order to advance, however, the Crew will have to win at least once during the three-game series in Washington, where it has lost all 11 meetings dating from MLS's launch in 1996. Also working against Columbus is the fact that United swept the four-game regular season series this year and didn't appear the slightest bit bothered during its two matches at Columbus's cozy new stadium.

Game 2 of this series takes place next Sunday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio, and, if necessary, Game 3 would be Nov. 13 at RFK.

After sweeping the 1997 conference finals, United was pushed to the limit by the Crew last year before advancing with a 3-0 victory at home in the third game.

Several factors will influence this year's series, but perhaps the most significant is United's defense against Columbus's dynamic striking tandem of Stern John and Brian McBride and swift wings Jeff Cunningham and Brian West. John, McBride and Cunningham combined for 35 of the club's 48 goals, and West, a Centennial High School and University of Virginia star, has become an influential player on the flanks.

However, the biggest concern is John, a 23-year-old Trinidadian who is being pursued by English club Nottingham Forest.

"Stern is definitely one of the best finishers in the league," United defender Eddie Pope said of the 18-goal scorer. "We have to be alert for 90 minutes. If we fall asleep for a second, that's it--those guys are deadly."

Pope's partner in central defense is almost certain to be Carey Talley, who would replace hard-tackling Carlos Llamosa (sprained knee ligament) for the third consecutive playoff game. Coach Thomas Rongen said Llamosa has made significant progress since getting injured three weeks ago, but probably isn't ready to return to the starting lineup.

United's other change is at defensive midfield, where Canadian veteran Geoff Aunger starts in place of Richie Williams, who is suspended for one game for receiving a red card last Sunday against Miami. Aunger is not the most skilled player on the team, but has been much more effective in that role at various times this year than when he has been tried at right back.

As for the Crew's inability to win at RFK, Columbus Coach Tom Fitzgerald said: "It happens in sports. You look at the history of sports throughout the world, there are places where teams play well and places where teams don't play well. We've had some pretty good games in D.C., but have never been able to win. To be honest, we haven't talked about it at all. Everything else is in the past."

Columbus came close to snapping the streak Aug. 14, when a couple of controversial calls, including a disallowed goal, went in D.C.'s favor during a 2-1 result.

Rongen, in his first season with United, is aware of his club's flawless record at home against Columbus. "As a coach, you worry about these things because the longer it goes on, sooner or later they are going to win one," he said.

Soccer Notes: The Western Conference finals begin today with the Los Angeles Galaxy facing the Dallas Burn at the Rose Bowl. The teams split the four-game regular season series. . . . The Northern Virginia Royals, a D.C. minor league affiliate, will hold an open tryout at United Park in Herndon next Sunday. For information, contact Coach Silvino Gonzalo at 703-512-8082. . . . United is 16-3 in its postseason history, including 10-0 at home, and is 19-3 against Eastern Conference opponents this year.

MLS PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

Columbus vs. D.C. United

Today: at D.C. United, 1 p.m.

Nov. 7: at Columbus, 1 p.m.

Nov. 13: at D.C. United, 4 p.m.

Western Conference

Dallas vs. Los Angeles

Today: at Los Angeles, 5:30 p.m.

Nov. 7: at Dallas, 3 p.m.

Nov. 11: at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.

MLS CUP

Nov. 21: at Foxboro, Mass., 1:30 p.m.