Nick Rimando's season has come full circle, beginning and ending as D.C. United's starting goalkeeper. But what transpired in those long summer months in between tested his resolve and left fans wondering if his stay in Washington was approaching a quiet end.

Rimando played in seven of the first eight games but watched the next 16 from the bench, a stretch that included minor knee surgery. But he won the job back from rookie Troy Perkins a month ago and, barring a nightmarish performance tonight against New England or next weekend against New York/New Jersey, he'll lead United into the MLS playoffs on Oct. 23-24.

"Come playoff time, you want to ride a hot goalkeeper, and Nicky's it right now," said assistant coach Mark Simpson, who oversees the team's goalies. "Not to take anything away from Troy -- Troy did a great job when he went in, he held his own and gained some experience -- but we've gotten on a bit of roll with Nick right now."

Rimando yielded two goals in the past four matches as United (9-10-9) went 3-1 to surge toward the postseason for the second straight year. He went largely untested in a pair of easy home victories, but played well during a 1-0 loss at first-place Columbus and made a superb save to help preserve United's 1-0 road win over the MetroStars last weekend.

It's been a refreshing change for Rimando, who had several shaky early-season performances after recovering from reconstructive knee surgery last fall.

"I feel like I'm doing my job, I'm being consistent," said Rimando, 25, in his third season with United after beginning his career with the defunct Miami Fusion. "I want to be playing as well as I can at playoff time."

But, he acknowledged, reaching this rejuvenating stage brought both frustration and uncertainty.

"I just wanted to be as confident as I could about the whole situation -- it's the first time I've had to go through it," said Rimando, who started almost every game between 2000 and 2003. "It was definitely hard, but I knew with the time off that I could get everything fixed. I just kept a good attitude and hoped I would get my chance."

Rimando, at 5 feet 10, relies on his quickness and reflexes to be effective. But early this year, after a long rehabilitation from an anterior cruciate ligament injury, he seemed to have lost a step. Additionally, his judgment on crosses and high balls was a little off. Following a 4-2 loss to Los Angeles on May 19, Rimando was benched and Perkins, an undrafted rookie, stepped in.

Perkins was spectacular at times and registered three shutouts, but his inexperience cost the team a few goals during his four months as a starter.

When Rimando returned, it seemed the coaching staff was just getting him some playing time and giving Perkins a break. But as the team continued to win, Rimando kept the job.

His biggest test was last week when United defender Ezra Hendrickson lost the ball in the D.C. end, allowing a breakaway by the MetroStars' Amado Guevara.

"As soon as [Hendrickson] gave up that ball, Nicky came out and held his ground and said, 'All right, whatcha got?' " Simpson said. "That's what I remember Nicky being. I see him challenging people, I see it every day in training right now."