Troy Perkins was expected to spend his rookie year observing the two celebrated goalkeepers ahead of him on the D.C. United depth chart, learning about the pro game and staying sharp by spending a few weekends with a local minor league team.

Ignored at the MLS draft in January, Perkins was just happy to be on someone's roster -- even if it meant signing a developmental contract that pays $850 per month and doesn't include health insurance, getting a second job (at a sporting goods store) and renting a room at the home of Georgetown Coach Keith Tabatznik.

"I figured this first year I would get some experience under my belt as far as what it's like, what is expected of me," he said yesterday. "But you also have that thought in the back of your head where maybe if I go in and work hard enough I can at least get a chance to get into an exhibition game and maybe get a chance to show something to keep in the coaches' minds. But I definitely didn't expect for this to happen so soon."

What happened to Perkins, just two months into the season, was an astonishing promotion from third string to starter. He debuted two weeks ago in a 2-1 loss at Colorado and last week made a spectacular second-half save during United's 1-0 victory at New England.

Most importantly, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Perkins has taken command of the penalty area and limited the opponents' effectiveness on crosses and high balls -- situations that had caused United's coaching staff severe anxiety early in the season.

Perkins is almost certain to start again today against the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field.

"He's done a good job," said assistant coach Mark Simpson, a former United goalie who oversees the club's goalkeepers. "Any keeper at this level can make saves, but you're looking for the ones that can win you games."

Perkins's finest moment came in the 61st minute last week, when he reacted quickly to tip aside a low attempt by Taylor Twellman, one of MLS's most lethal scorers. Ten minutes earlier, Perkins and Twellman had gone face to face on a penalty kick -- Twellman's shot hit the outside of the right post, but had it been on target, the outstretched Perkins probably would've stopped it.

"I thought he did really well [against Colorado], and this [past] week he was tremendous again," midfielder Earnie Stewart said.

Perkins, 22, played three seasons at the University of South Florida before transferring to Evansville, where he yielded 21 goals in 19 matches last fall. (He also played the past three summers as an amateur with the low minor league Cape Cod Crusaders and last year trained for six weeks with Mexican power Toluca.)

This past winter, after a good showing at the MLS scouting combine, Perkins expected to be drafted. Instead, six rounds came and went without his name being called.

But minutes after the draft ended, his agent, Patrick McCabe, said he was approached by United officials, who said they wanted to invite Perkins to training camp in Bradenton, Fla. Perkins performed well there and then during a two-week stay in Mexico. Coach Peter Nowak was most impressed by his play in an exhibition against Mexican club Chivas.

"He saved everything there was to save, except for one free kick," Nowak recalled.

Perkins, a native of central Ohio, made the final roster and was signed to a developmental contract. But he was clearly behind Nick Rimando, a four-year veteran who had made 53 consecutive starts before tearing a knee ligament last year, and Doug Warren, a second-round pick in 2003 and a regular on the U.S. under-23 national team.

Although Rimando earned a win and tie in the first two games, his positioning and decision-making were a little off. Warren started Game 3 and earned mixed reviews. Rimando got the call for the next five matches, ending with a nightmarish performance against Los Angeles in a 4-2 loss. It was assumed Warren would go back to the net, but the coaches decided to give Perkins a shot.

"They had mentioned during the week, 'Be ready, you might get a chance,' " he said. "When the lineup was announced, at first, it was, 'You can't be serious.' But I realized they have me here for a reason, and I know I belong here. During warmups [before the Colorado game], I was nervous, but I just put everything else behind me. I knew I would be fine."

Now that he has proven himself, Perkins could get his contract upgraded soon, which might allow him to find a place of his own and quit his job at Galyans, where he works after practice. Much depends on whether he is able to maintain his fine form in goal. For now, the job is his, but Simpson cautioned that Rimando and Warren remain in the mix.

"It was a progression through all of the training Troy has done with us," Simpson said. "We've always included Troy in the equation; it wasn't just the other two goalkeepers. Nothing against the other two guys, but Troy has really grasped this position right now. It's like the NHL -- you ride a hot goalkeeper."

Troy Perkins, 22, began season as third-string rookie, is now United's starting goalie: "I definitely didn't expect for this to happen so soon."PERKINS

From undrafted to starter