Having blown its chance to close out the Eastern Conference finals in Columbus, Ohio, last weekend, D.C. United is one loss from missing Major League Soccer's championship game for the first time in its history. The players are back at their practice facility in Herndon, burying themselves in heavy training. The fans are supportive but tense. And no one would blame General Manager Kevin Payne if he were a little on edge.

Luckily, he has Jaime Moreno.

"C'mon, pick a card."

That was Moreno, one of United's star forwards, after a practice this week. He had run into Payne at the bottom of a stairwell and immediately spread out five playing cards in his right hand. Payne, looking a little frayed, stopped. He smiled broadly and picked a card.

Moreno tried to distract the small group that had gathered to watch, eventually tucking the card away and proudly declaring it "disappeared." Everyone cracked up.

"I don't know whether he was consciously trying to lighten things up, but that's just sort of the way Jaime is," Payne said later. "Jaime is a very intelligent guy, very mature, but also really fun-loving. He's a prankster. When we're in an airport, no one dares put their bag down around Jaime, because it'll disappear. He's just great to have around."

Of course, when United faces the Crew in the decisive Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday at RFK Stadium, it will be looking for more than laughs from Moreno. The 25-year-old Bolivian will be one of the team's key weapons against a Columbus squad that beat United in every possible way in Game 2. There will be lots of pressure.

Again, Payne is lucky. Moreno is used to this.

When he was 6 years old, Moreno would wander through Santa Cruz, Bolivia, with his friends and a white-and-black ball. The son of an elementary school principal, he was from a middle-class family living in a city drenched in two things: poverty and soccer. Like most kids growing up in South America, he and his friends would kick a soccer ball through the streets, although their favorite spot, in the center of the city, had too much traffic to play in during the day. So Moreno and his buddies would creep back into the street at night, sometimes dodging headlights, sometimes dodging angry neighbors who would yell when Moreno accidentally kicked a ball against their doors.

That was 1980, the year Moreno started to attend Tahuichi Academy, a prestigious soccer school based in Santa Cruz. A few years ahead of him, a kid named Marco Etcheverry, also from Santa Cruz, was enrolled. Etcheverry was a star. Moreno was good. To stay in the school, he had to get better.

"There's a lot of competition there, a lot of kids where the only chance for them to make something of their lives is soccer," said U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, formerly the coach of United. "You learn to grow up fast."

Moreno got bigger, stronger and better as the years went on, eventually playing on championship teams. He occasionally played with Etcheverry, and while other boys his age were intimidated by the talented midfielder, Moreno was quick to disarm any tension with jokes, often referring to Etcheverry as "Don Marco." In 1994, he became the youngest member of Bolivia's World Cup team. Later that year, he signed with the British club Middlesbrough, becoming the first Bolivian to play in the stellar English Premier League.

Everything seemed great. Except that when Moreno arrived in Middlesbrough, a small port city in northeast England, he was only 20 years old. He spoke no English. He was away from his family for the first time. And he wasn't playing.

"I thought I was going to get there and just start playing, so I wouldn't have time to think about it," said Moreno, who was not used in games immediately because he arrived in England somewhat out of shape. "But when instead of playing you are just sitting in the hotel, it's very hard. I was just sitting there, calling home every day. It was pretty bad."

Eventually, Moreno began to adjust to England, playing more soccer and taking English lessons from a tutor for a few hours a week. His language skills took an even greater leap after he met a young Englishwoman named Louise. Now married, they have two children and another due in less than two months.

Moreno gets excited when talking about his family, but he acknowledges that three children and a marriage before the age of 26 is a lot of responsibility. Three children and a marriage to someone who's from a completely different culture can be even more difficult. "It's everything--the culture, even the food we eat," Moreno said. "In South America, we are more macho. In [the United States] and in England, the women are more free. That was kind of hard, but we've done a good job trying to find something in between.

"We talk about it and try to find ways we like. She had to stop doing some of the things she liked and I had to stop doing some of the things I like. It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun, too."

In 1996, two years after Moreno went to England, he found himself at RFK, playing for the Bolivian national team in the U.S. Cup. Part of the way through a game against the United States, he got the ball at midfield and started running. And dazzling. Burning U.S. players left and right, Moreno scored a goal that made everyone in RFK--including Arena--take notice.

That summer, Arena acquired him from Middlesbrough to play for United. Once again, Moreno crossed an ocean for soccer, this time with a family in tow. Unlike in England, the now-bilingual Moreno settled onto the team quickly, forming a bridge between Latin and American cliques. He also used practical jokes to endear himself to his new teammates, and the card tricks are just the beginning. Moreno will hide your shoes in the overhead bin of a plane; he'll keep moving your briefcase until you swear you're going crazy; he'll jump out and scream as soon as you turn a corner.

And if that doesn't make you uncomfortable, his tremendous soccer skills will.

"He's one of the few players in the world who is actually faster with the ball than without the ball," said United defender Jeff Agoos, one of the players Moreno blew by to score that U.S. Cup goal in '96. "He just gets faster as he goes, and he's very unpredictable, which makes him a very dangerous attacker."

Moreno scored five goals in 16 games during his first MLS season, helping United win the league's inaugural championship. He was even sharper in '97, scoring 19 goals in 25 games, including a goal in the '97 MLS Cup final, which United also won. He did not have as sharp a season in '98, something he blames on putting on weight again, but a strict diet--no sweets at night--and tough training regimen have made the '99 season his best ever.

Recently his teammates voted him the club's most valuable player, besting Etcheverry, who remains one of his closest friends. Off the field, he is just as competitive, often battling midfielder Ben Olsen at Ping-Pong or shooting pool with Arena.

His life is very different than anything he ever imagined, although some things haven't changed. Faced with a situation such as Saturday's game, he is still as determined as ever. And as he comes home from practice this week, he is struggling with the traffic, dodging headlights like he did in Santa Cruz. "When I first got my house, it wasn't so busy--now there are too many cars," said Moreno, sounding almost like a Washington native. "But really, I like it here, everything about it. No matter what happens with United, I have really found my second family in Washington. This is home."