After practicing with the U.S. national team in Ohio on Thursday, Earnie Stewart checked his voice mail. The message was from D.C. United President Kevin Payne: "We need you."

Desperate for help because of an injury crisis, United asked permission from U.S. Coach Bruce Arena to allow Stewart to return to Washington for tonight's match against the Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium.

Arena, who probably wasn't going to start Stewart in Sunday's World Cup qualifier against Grenada in Columbus, Ohio, let his veteran midfielder decide.

"Of course, you have mixed feelings," Stewart said, "but I felt it was something I had to do. . . . I feel so much a part of D.C. United, I felt it would be good for me to go."

Stewart flew back Thursday evening, practiced with the team early yesterday and will be in the starting lineup tonight for United's first home match in 3 1/2 weeks. He is scheduled to return to Columbus on a 6:15 a.m. flight Sunday morning, well ahead of the 1 p.m. kickoff against Grenada.

"I am very grateful and thankful," United Coach Peter Nowak said. "He decided to come back without any pressure. He knows the situation and this is how a real professional acts. I know how important national team games are for him. It's great to see him back."

Stewart's return was necessitated by United's dwindling roster. Midfielder Bobby Convey, a possible starter or top reserve for the national team, remained in Ohio. Forwards Santino Quaranta and Eliseo Quintanilla remain sidelined with injuries, and forward Thiago Martins, on the brink of making his season debut, re-injured his knee this week.

Forward Jaime Moreno will return today after missing two games with a quadriceps injury, but midfielder Ben Olsen is questionable with a strained knee tendon and defender Bryan Namoff is out for at least a week with an abdominal strain. All-star defender Ryan Nelsen has returned from New Zealand national team duty, but he also has an abdominal ailment and is not at full strength.

"This is not something we had to do," Arena said in a prepared statement. "Nonetheless, D.C. United presented an emergency circumstance with a lack of available players for their game Saturday night. In the end, we left it up to Earnie, and he decided to go back. We look forward to his return, and we are confident that our group will be prepared to be successful on Sunday."

Stewart said he won't know how much he could play Sunday until after recovering from tonight's game.

"I am going to be there," said Stewart, who is two U.S. appearances from reaching 100 in his long international career, a milestone for players worldwide. "I spoke to Bruce, he knew about the situation. He asked me to come back after the [D.C. game] and he said I would be a part of that. What that means, just sitting on the bench or maybe even helping out for a minute or so, that's Bruce's decision. If he calls, I'll be ready."

Nowak needs all the help he can get, not only because of the slim roster but because his team is coming off its worst all-around performance of the season, a 3-0 loss at Chicago. Without being specific, Nowak said only three players made significant contributions.

"The situation we have right now is pretty difficult, but . . . mentally we are much, much better than Monday or Tuesday after the game in Chicago, and everybody is ready for this game," he said. "They understand what kinds of mistakes we made. Their approach is different right now. We forget about that game. We analyzed it, we talked about it and now it's just a new challenge for us."

Said forward Freddy Adu: "I feel like we have a lot to prove after last week. We don't want that to happen again. We know we're a better team than that."

United Notes: Colorado will be without four starters -- defenders Pablo Mastroeni and Nat Borchers (both suspended), midfielder Mark Chung (quadriceps injury) and forward Jean Philippe Peguero (Haitian national team duty).