It has become standard procedure for D.C. United Coach Thomas Rongen: Fret during the week about possible player absences, call out the reserves, salute their admirable performances after another victory, welcome back the returning starters the following weekend.

After using interchangeable parts throughout the seven-month regular season, Rongen turned to that winning formula again Sunday in a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew in Game 1 of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference finals.

Defensive midfielder Richie Williams was suspended for receiving a red card in the previous match. So in came Canadian veteran Geoff Aunger.

Central defender Carlos Llamosa wasn't quite ready to return from a sprained knee ligament. Enter second-year player Carey Talley.

As usual, no drop-offs were detected.

Aunger linked the defense with the attack and helped disrupt Columbus's charge, while Talley teamed well with Eddie Pope and yielded few scoring opportunities to the Crew's dangerous forwards.

But now that their work is done, both probably will return to the bench this Sunday for Game 2 of the best-of-three series at the Crew's new stadium in central Ohio. Williams will reclaim his position, and Llamosa might be back after sitting out for nearly a month.

"During the course of the game, we didn't give a lot of chances up, and against a lethal attack like that, that's certainly very encouraging," Rongen said. "We have to continue to do that to win this series, which is far from over."

There was some question about United's depth at the start of the season, but not anymore. Aunger, Talley, forward A.J. Wood and goalkeeper Mark Simpson were considered reliable last-minute replacements or second-half substitutes, but they've also seized the moment when called upon to start in place of star players who were injured, suspended or away on national team duty.

Aunger started 24 regular season games, Talley got the call 16 times, Simpson replaced Tom Presthus on nine occasions and Wood made 13 starts and 24 appearances, finishing fourth on the club in scoring with eight goals and six assists.

Of stopping the Crew's Stern John and Brian McBride, Talley said: "We knew we had to shut them down completely. We know they're a big part of their attack, and when the ball is swung out wide, we have to be really aware of where they're going to be on the crosses."

While Talley, 23, has become one of MLS's fastest-emerging young players, the modestly skilled Aunger, 31, has found a role after struggling as a right-side defender last year.

"He displayed a lot of discipline and allowed us to switch the point of attack," Rongen said after Sunday's match. "He played within his limitations, very simple, didn't turn the ball over too often. That was very important for us."

The play of these reserves is crucial for Rongen, who lost rookie Chris Albright, a back-up midfielder and forward, to a knee injury last week.

If Llamosa is available this week, United would have its top starting lineup for one of the few times this season. But that hasn't always meant a sure-fire victory. Strangely, the team chemistry has seemed a little better with the reserves than with the top players.

Meantime, Crew Coach Tom Fitzgerald said he might start one of his reserves in Game 2: Jamaican World Cup midfielder Andy Williams. After entering in the 63rd minute of the opener, Williams enlivened the Crew's ineffective attack with his footwork and ability to find space.

United Notes: Defender Diego Sonora's agent, Ruben Morales, met with United officials yesterday, but according to D.C. President and General Manager Kevin Payne, details of a new contract were not discussed.