D.C. United had several targets to direct its frustration toward today after the worst loss in its playoff history, a 5-1 thumping by the Columbus Crew that tied Major League Soccer's best-of-three Eastern Conference finals at one game apiece.

United took aim at itself: "We stunk up the place," Coach Thomas Rongen said.

At referee Brian Hall: "The referee was terrible," Bolivian midfielder Marco Etcheverry said. "I did not believe it. The U.S.A. makes everything. . . . Why can't they make a good referee?"

At the Crew: "We had a prison break," D.C. goalkeeper Tom Presthus said. "They were real physical, and the yellow cards didn't deter them, either. . . . If it was going to be played like that, we should have done the same and done our share of kicking as well."

The bottom line, however, was that the Crew dominated the rough match after falling behind in the sixth minute and forced Game 3 Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium, where Columbus has never won in 12 visits. The Western Conference finals also will require another game after Dallas defeated Los Angeles, 3-2, in a shootout today to even that series. The winners will meet in the title game Nov. 21 in Foxboro, Mass.

Today, Trinidadian striker Stern John scored three goals in the second half and Jamaican World Cup star Andy Williams sparked the midfield before 12,778 at the Crew's new stadium.

The loss was United's worst of the season, its first on the road in league play in more than four months and was eerily similar to its 4-2 loss to Columbus in the second game of last year's conference finals. United (26-10) responded from that loss to win the decisive match easily, but there might be cause for greater concern this time.

Except for Roy Lassiter's early goal--which was set up by a Crew defensive mistake--and Ben Olsen's chip shot that hit the crossbar in the 53rd minute, United's attack had no impact. D.C.'s defense, which switched to a three-man alignment at halftime after losing all-star Eddie Pope to a twisted ankle, left gaping holes for the quicker Columbus attack to exploit.

The Crew (22-14) set the tone at the start with aggressive tactics, catching the attention of Hall, who issued an early yellow card to defender Mike Clark and verbal warnings to some of his teammates. Columbus finished with 30 fouls, one short of the MLS playoff record, and three yellow cards in the first 52 minutes. United committed 15 fouls, with reserve Geoff Aunger getting a late yellow.

After Clark's early booking, Lassiter knocked in Etcheverry's free kick that had been misplayed by Columbus's Ansil Elcock for just his fifth goal in the last 4 1/2 months and first of the playoffs.

However, Elcock redeemed himself in the 20th minute by collecting Williams's pass behind the D.C. defense and beating Presthus to the far corner. United seemed desperate to reach halftime without giving up another goal, but with about four minutes remaining, fleet wing Jeff Cunningham split a pair of defenders and ripped a 20-yard shot past a diving Presthus.

John took over in the second half, scoring on a clever move deep in the box in the 48th minute, on a powerful header off Robert Warzycha's corner kick in the 61st and on a clear run at Presthus with about six minutes to go to increase his playoff total to five. It seemed to serve as a sweet home farewell for John, who is expected to sign with an English Premier League club after this season.

Today's lopsided outcome was a shocker because United won all four regular season meetings with the Crew and won this series opener by a deceiving 2-1 score. D.C. was at its finest in that game, particularly in the first half, and showed little reason to fear the Crew. But as it has done on several occasions late in the year, United turned in a subpar performance. Only this time, it must regroup in time to earn its fourth consecutive berth in the championship game.

"For us, everything was wrong," Etcheverry said, "but they played a good game, too. We have a chance Saturday at home and then we will be in the final. . . . We have reason to believe."

United Notes: D.C.'s previous road loss was in a shootout to San Jose on July 4. The only other time it lost by at least three goals this season was 3-0 at Dallas on June 16. United's all-time playoff record is 17-4; the Crew's is 9-7.

MLS Conference Finals

Eastern Conference

D.C. United vs. Columbus

(Series tied, 1-1)

Game 1: United 2, Columbus 1

Game 2: Columbus 5, United 1

Game 3: Saturday at D.C. United, 4

Western Conference

Los Angeles vs. Dallas

(Series tied, 1-1)

Game 1: Los Angeles 2, Dallas 1

Game 2: Dallas 3, Los Angeles 2

Game 3: Thursday at Los Angeles, 10:30