MLS and D.C. United are preparing to offer all-star Ryan Nelsen a contract that would make him one of the highest-paid defenders in the league, club president Kevin Payne said yesterday.

Nelsen's contract expires on Dec. 31 and, although the New Zealand native has expressed interest in pursuing a deal in Europe, United officials are hoping to persuade him to stay in MLS. "The league will make a formal offer [this week] and then it will be up to Ryan," Payne said.

Payne wouldn't discuss specifics, other than to say the offer would include more than one guaranteed year, which is unusual in MLS negotiations. Almost all MLS contracts are for one guaranteed season and a couple of league-held option years. "That demonstrates our regard for Ryan and his ability," Payne said.

According to players' union documents, Nelsen is set to make about $90,000 this year. As one of the top-paid defenders in MLS, he would earn at least $200,000, which probably wouldn't come close to matching a European offer. But there are no assurances Nelsen will receive an offer overseas.

"I told Kevin, right now I'm just trying to concentrate on D.C. and the playoffs," said Nelsen, a former Stanford star in his fourth season with United. "As soon as the season's over, I'll have a good sit-down [with his agent, Lyle Yorks] and assess all our options."

Yorks is believed to be in Europe on business and couldn't be reached to comment.

Payne said Nelsen, 27, would have to decide whether to accept the offer about a week after the MLS championship game on Nov. 14. "We told him the reality is, if he goes over to Europe in search of a new club, we're going to have to start seriously searching for a replacement," Payne said. "If he doesn't find a team in Europe and he wants to come back here, our offer may not be there anymore."

Despite missing 13 of 30 regular season games, primarily because of injuries and national team commitments, Nelsen continued to establish himself as one of the premier defenders in MLS. Anchored by Nelsen, United has yielded only four goals in the past seven games.

However, he mildly sprained his right ankle in a 2-0 playoff victory at New York/New Jersey on Saturday and has missed the past two practices. He plans to participate in light workouts today before rejoining full practice tomorrow. "I should be fine," he said.

Playing It Safe With Adu

Obscured by United's series-opening win last weekend was the fact that 15-year-old Freddy Adu sat on the bench for the entire game -- a bit surprising because he was one of only two players on the 24-man roster to play in every regular season match.

"I don't really want to risk anything," Coach Peter Nowak said in reference to Adu's spectacular fall on his back and shoulder during a game a week earlier.

"For a few days he did not feel that good. Putting him into a game when it's very competitive, if something bad is going to happen, every player is very important for us. He didn't play, but he knows he's part of this team and I'm looking forward to getting him minutes the next couple of games." . . .

The team has been told by MLS that forward Alecko Eskandarian and midfielder Brian Carroll will lose their developmental status, meaning their contracts will count toward the salary cap next season. They will also be eligible for selection in the expansion draft next month unless United includes them on its 12-man protected list. Adu, Nana Kuffour, Jason Thompson and David Stokes will retain their developmental status. . . .

Midfielder Christian Gomez missed practice yesterday with an illness. . . .

Defender Ezra Hendrickson returned to the team following the birth of his daughter, 6-pound 6-ounce Xavia, last week in Los Angeles.

United is preparing to offer Ryan Nelsen, right, who could pursue a deal in Europe, a contract fitting his emergence as one of MLS's top defenders.