Perhaps the Washington Redskins should have reserved 45 seats in their old RFK Stadium home yesterday, right next to the Screaming Eagles' cheering section. Maybe the constant drum beats, the horns and whistles, would have stirred their blood the way it seemed to inspire D.C. United. Watching thousands of soccer fans stand throughout an entire game, cheering constantly, reminds anyone of the primal passion of sport.

Of course, while they were at it, the Washington Wizards and Capitals might have bought enough tickets for their squads, too. They could have sat behind the "Barra Brava" sign--loosely translated, "The Crazed Ones." They are United's large Hispanic contingent. At halftime of the third and last game of the MLS Eastern Conference finals yesterday, the RFK field was empty of players; the stadium, one would think, might have been stone silent. How do you cheer for 110 yards of idle grass?

Instead, the stadium just kept rocking--banners waving, chants unabated--as the multinational United crowd continued to party, congratulating itself on the 4-0 thrashing that its heroes were giving to the Columbus Crew. Fourth straight year in the MLS championship game, here we come!

Finally, it would have done no harm for all of our other pro sports teams from hereabouts, especially the Orioles, to have watched the way a genuine championship caliber team--and its leader, captain Marco Etcheverry--handle a big game with the season on the line.

Who says that, when it counts most, your best players can't all show up, all play their best, all join in the highlight film. United will face the Los Angeles Galaxy next Sunday in Foxboro, Mass.--trying for its third MLS championship in four seasons--because Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno (a goal and an assist) and Roy Lassiter (two goals) played at their inspired, improvisational best when a loss would have ended their season.

Etcheverry, the league MVP in '98, assisted on the first three Washington goals. Then, to cap one of the best Big Game performances of the last 25 years by any Washington athlete, Etcheverry scored on a dazzling 23-yard free kick that barely skimmed off the top of a defender's head, yet still dug into the top left corner of the goal.

Etcheverry is the core of everything United and dominated this game with his personality and fire from the first minutes. "He's magic," Crew Coach Tom Fitzgerald said. "He's just the type of player every team in the league would love to have. But there aren't too many Marco Etcheverry's."

Season after season, we hear Norv Turner, after losses, talking about the Redskins' failure to "make big plays" when it matters. How often has an Orioles manager wondered why his team plays its worst the more important the game? Just this week, Wizards rookie coach Gar Heard openly questioned the heart, the very desire to compete, of his highly-paid squad.

Unfortunately, Washington has only one Etcheverry, and he plays soccer--the sport that draws 21,451 (with 30,000-plus seats left empty) and is telecast on ESPN2, not network TV. Sad to say, what he possesses is precisely what the Redskins, Wizards, Caps and Orioles have lacked in 1999.

"Marco is our leader. How he goes, we go," defender Eddie Pope said. "We all followed his example. He stepped up and carried the team on his shoulders."

The 5-foot-10, 29-year-old Bolivian bristles with commitment to winning. Everything from Etcheverry's shoulder-length hair to his swaggering walk to his arm-whirling waves to the crowd draw attention to him. But in the best way. His flamboyance says, "I care. I am responsible. I am in charge here."

In the opening minutes against Columbus, Etcheverry, who can play with a mean streak, was screaming at a linesman--not once, but three times, constantly raising a fuss. The flap was about nothing. But the crowd and United quickly got into the game.

By the 10th minute, Etcheverry had been yellow-carded for slashing the legs out from under a foe and, a minute later, was tripped from behind by a Crew man who got a yellow card of his own. Raise the stakes. Play on the edge. Make it personal. That's how you do it on your own field in front of your own crowd. Among local teams, at least United hasn't forgotten what home-field advantage means. The Crew is 0-13 in visits to Washington. United is 12-0 in postseason games on East Capitol Street.

"I thought 13 was our lucky number," said Fitzgerald, of the Crew's losing streak in D.C. "We're going to beat them here--someday. . . . If anybody has suggestions, e-mail me."

That may be difficult as long as United has its fans and its Etcheverry. "I've never heard anything like that from 21,000 people," goalkeeper Tom Presthus said. "You can compare it to the 80,000 at Redskins Stadium. I think our fans are twice as loud. We couldn't talk to each other, even standing face to face."

As for Etcheverry, he may be even more dependable than the ruckus from the Crazed Ones. "That's what Marco is about--big games," midfielder Jeff Agoos said.

The man himself does not disagree. "Sometimes I play badly. But, sometimes . . . ," Etcheverry said, stopping for a sly smile. "I like these games--the semifinal, the finals, the trophy, making my teammates happy. A lot of players love the money."

Etcheverry's salary is $250,000--less than the major league baseball minimum for rookies. Still, at this moment, he may be the best example in Washington sports of what a clutch player looks like.

Describing soccer is usually futile. But Etcheverry makes you want to try. United's first goal came on a give-and-go from the top of the box. Moreno fed Etcheverry, then cut to the goal. Etcheverry simply redirected the ball with a lizard-quick flick of his left foot.

On Washington's second goal, Etcheverry saw a potential mismatch between Lassiter, speeding up the right wing, and slower defender Mike Lapper, the Crew captain. Only a perfect, dazzling 30-yard pass, feathered over Lapper's head, would do the trick. Brad Johnson couldn't throw a football more precisely. Lassiter redirected the first hop with his head, then blasted a left footer into the far corner.

As for Etcheverry's goal, it was, basically, impossible--a left-footed blast that skipped off a Crew cut. "Sometimes we are lucky," Etcheverry said. "But I do practice that kick every day."

Off somebody's head?

"Maybe I need to put a player there in practice," he said wryly.

There is only one more D.C. United game this season: next Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on ABC. "D.C. is the standard [in this league] . . . whether it's possess [style soccer], counter-attack, speed or brains," Fitzgerald said. "If you don't [see] that [championship] game, you're missing a treat."

For once, a Washington team and its captain will probably play their best and most emotional game, not their worst and flattest, with a title at stake.