United 3, Fire 1

D.C. United continued its late-season march toward the MLS playoffs last night, rushing to a three-goal lead and cruising to a 3-1 victory over the Chicago Fire before 15,851 at RFK Stadium.

Bolivian forward Jaime Moreno, whose career appeared to be nearing an end last offseason because of a back injury, registered three assists for the second consecutive week to move into serious contention for league MVP honors.

He set up Christian Gomez, Alecko Eskandarian and Ben Olsen in the first 40 minutes as United (8-9-9) won two games in a row for the first time this season, improved to 3-1-3 in its last seven matches and stretched its home unbeaten streak to eight (5-0-3).

Eskandarian described the first half as "awesome, so much fun. . . . We were almost laughing at each other, even when we screwed up, because we were working hard for each other and having so much fun, we knew it was going to keep getting better. It was one of our best efforts."

The Fire (7-11-8) had beaten United six straight times, including a pair of playoff victories last fall, but last night was shredded by a D.C. attack that created a continuous supply of scoring opportunities. The only blemish in the first half was Moreno's missed penalty kick.

Chicago's goal came in the closing seconds on Andy Williams's penalty kick, ending United's shutout streak at 187 minutes.

United Coach Peter Nowak didn't make any changes to his starting lineup -- only the second time he has done that in consecutive games this season -- and his team was just as effective as in last week's 3-0 win over Dallas. Perhaps the most impressive display was exhibited by the trio of Moreno, Eskandarian and the newly acquired Gomez.

"Things like that aren't going to happen overnight," Nowak said of Gomez's integration into the lineup. "This kind of understanding comes with time, and right now is the crucial time."

The Fire had returned to playoff contention with two straight wins, including a 3-1 decision over United two weeks ago. But United took the initiative last night and jumped to a quick lead. Defender Mike Petke started the attack by finding Eskandarian in the center circle. Eskandarian cleverly touched the ball to Moreno, who dashed into open space before delivering a diagonal ball to Gomez making a run on his left. The Argentine midfielder then ripped an 18-yard shot that glanced off goalkeeper Henry Ring's hand and into the right side for his first goal since joining the team last month.

United's pressure was unrelenting as Moreno, Gomez and Eskandarian combined to carve space in Chicago's beleaguered backfield. Moreno sent a dangerous cross from the end line through the six-yard box and, later, Gomez lifted a ball to Eskandarian for a header that bounded narrowly wide of the near post.

The lead expanded in the 20th minute when Eskandarian exchanged a corner kick with Moreno and then drilled a long-range shot that deflected off rookie midfielder Scott Buete (University of Maryland) and past the helpless Ring. It probably should have been ruled an own goal because the initial shot seemed to be heading toward Ring, but Eskandarian was given credit for his 10th goal and Moreno another assist.

United had a chance to turn it into a rout in the 28th minute, but after Gomez set up Moreno to draw a penalty kick, Moreno's attempt was blocked by Ring.

But United's lead grew to 3-0 in the 40th minute, once again inspired by Moreno. The Bolivian slipped a pass to Olsen, who touched it around Ring and, from near the end line, sent the ball toward an open net. Defender C.J. Brown slid in a desperate attempt to prevent the goal, but instead knocked the ball just over the line. It was initially ruled an own goal, but at halftime, Olsen was credited. As a result, Moreno earned his league-high 13th assist to go with his seven goals.

The first half "was too fast for us," Fire Coach Dave Sarachan said. "They got [the ball] moving faster than we could catch it."

United Notes: Earnie Stewart, coming off a hamstring injury, and teenager Freddy Adu, making his second straight appearance off the bench, entered with about 20 minutes left. . . . United will play its next two league matches on the road -- at Columbus Saturday and New York/New Jersey Oct. 2 -- to conclude its away schedule. . . . Because of a late-running college football game, Comcast SportsNet didn't switch to D.C.'s match until late in the first half and missed all three goals.

Christian Gomez, left, who scored his first goal since joining United, tries to avoid a tackle by Chicago's Scott Buete (University of Maryland).