Peter Tchernyshev believes strongly in the concept of cheering for his U.S. teammates. "That's true, yes," he said, flashing a grin. "In ladies', men's and pairs."

But not in ice dance. And with good reason.

Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang, five-time champions, have developed a rivalry with another U.S. team, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. It's the first time in recent history that two U.S. dance teams are among the top-ranked pairs in the world.

"When we're on the ice," Tchernyshev said, "it's all business."

It will be business again this afternoon at MCI Center when the ice dancing portion of the World Championships begins with the compulsory dance. No U.S. team has finished better than third at the World Championships since 1985 when Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert won the bronze. Lang and Tchernyshev were ninth the last two years. Belbin and Agosto were 13th last year and 17th in 2001.

Neither Lang and Tchernyshev nor Belbin and Agosto are expected to win a medal this year -- Russians Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh are the heavy favorites -- but two U.S. teams could finish in the top 10 for the first time in 13 years.

"It's great to be considered on the same level as Naomi and Peter," Belbin said.

Since Liz Punsalan and Jerod Swallow left the competitive ranks after the 1998 Olympics, Lang and Tchernyshev have dominated the sport in the United States. But this season, Lang was slowed by a nagging heel injury, forcing her and Tchernyshev to withdraw from international competitions this past fall.

While Lang and Tchernyshev were out, Belbin and Agosto gained ground internationally. They placed third at two Grand Prix events and nearly made the Grand Prix Final, which includes the top six teams in the world.

In figure skating, especially in ice dancing, being out of the limelight is almost worse than competing poorly. So Lang and Tchernyshev knew they had a lot to prove at the U.S. championships in January. Belbin and Agosto led after the original dance, but Belbin slipped toward the end of the free dance and it cost them the title.

Lang and Tchernyshev, who were only able to train for about six weeks before nationals, rejoiced in the victory. But the celebration was short-lived.

One month later, Belbin and Agosto finished second at the Four Continents Championships in Beijing; Lang and Tchernyshev were third. It was the first time Belbin and Agosto had beaten Lang and Tchernyshev in seven meetings.

"Before we went to Four Continents, we trained our free dance very, very hard," Agosto said. "We did it so many times so that no matter what was going on in our heads we could do it."

The extra training, no doubt, paid off, but it is also intriguing that Belbin and Agosto fared better against Lang and Tchernyshev under the new judging system. The system, which is being used this week at worlds, uses a computer to randomly select nine marks from a panel of 14 judges.

Lang and Tchernyshev believe they are starting on a clean slate this week. Lang, who plans on undergoing surgery following the Champions on Ice tour this spring, said that considering her injury, it's practically a victory that they're even skating here.

"For all the ground we've had to make up this year, we're right where we want to be," Lang said.

Belbin and Agosto, meantime, are hoping to pick up where they left off at Four Continents.

"The door was open and we were able to walk through it," Belbin said.