The cigar smoke had barely cleared from D.C. United's merry locker room Sunday at Home Depot Center when the focus inevitably turned to the club's future.

"We want to keep this group together as best we can," said United President Kevin Payne, his hair soaked by champagne. "It's a special group that really came together as the season went on."

The sobering reality, however, is that Payne's group will not be completely intact when the players reconvene early next year.

Midfielder Earnie Stewart announced after the 3-2 MLS Cup victory over the Kansas City Wizards that he plans to return to his native Netherlands. Team captain Ryan Nelsen, widely regarded as the best defender in the league, will pursue opportunities in Europe, although he hasn't ruled out re-signing with United.

Another starting defender, Mike Petke, is out of a contract in January, and the club must find a way to retain Argentine playmaker Christian Gomez, who joined the team in August on a short-term loan.

The most pressing issue is Friday's expansion draft, which likely will result in United losing two or three players. Each of the current 10 teams must submit a list of 12 protected players to the league office today, which will leave some quality talent available for selection by the new franchises in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

United officials have been mum about their list, but it's fair to assume it will include goalkeeper Nick Rimando, defender Bryan Namoff, midfielders Ben Olsen, Brian Carroll, Dema Kovalenko, Josh Gros and Gomez, and forwards Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian and Santino Quaranta. Nelsen and Petke will also likely be protected in case they re-sign. (Freddy Adu, 15, and three other young players are exempt from the expansion draft because of their age and experience.)

That would leave rookie goalie Troy Perkins (16 starts), veteran defenders Brandon Prideaux and Ezra Hendrickson, and forwards Eliseo Quintanilla and Thiago Martins (both of whom missed the entire season with injuries) exposed. Thomas Rongen, coach of the new L.A. club, knows United's personnel well after serving as D.C.'s TV color commentator the last three years following a three-year stint as United's coach.

No team can lose more than three players in the expansion draft. After one of its players is chosen, a team can pull back someone from the pool.

United won't be able to rely on the regular draft, scheduled for mid-January in Baltimore, to fully bolster its roster because it appears the club will only have a second- and fifth-round pick -- the result of several trades the past two years.

Nelsen's departure would undoubtedly have the greatest impact. The club has made the New Zealand native an offer that would make him among the highest-paid defenders in the league. Payne has said they would like a response from Nelsen, 27, and his Washington-based agent, Lyle Yorks, as soon as possible so they can begin planning for next season. If Nelsen leaves, United would likely pursue an accomplished foreign defender to take his place.

Otherwise, United should have most of its foundation in place next year. Moreno's back problems didn't resurface and he plans to return. Eskandarian, MVP of the MLS Cup, has emerged as one of the most dangerous strikers in the league. Gros, a rookie from Rutgers, will likely step in for Stewart, and Adu is poised for a big year next season after making steady progress under Coach Peter Nowak's guidance.

The key, however, will be maintaining team chemistry, which players and coaches attributed to the team's late-season surge.

"The group of guys we have on this team, I can't say enough about them," Eskandarian said. "We had a meeting [Saturday night] and kind of reflected on the year and Earnie Stewart got up and spoke. One of the things that really got me was that this would be the last time this group of guys would ever be on the field together. We went through so much this year, we got along so well, just an excellent climax to the year. Best team I've ever been on in my life -- a group of guys who are class acts, great friends. I look at them as brothers."

Much credit goes to Nowak, who brought a disciplined approach to a team that some veterans say suffered from disorganization under previous coach Ray Hudson.

Although Nowak came across at times as excessively rigid, he was able to sell the players on his intense style.

"It was an amazing year for me as a first-year coach," he said. "They trust my way, they trust my vision, they shared a vision with me."

United defender Ryan Nelsen, left, could leave for Europe, but MLS Cup MVP Alecko Eskandarian, right, likely will return to a team with a few new faces.