Team captain Ryan Nelsen, the defensive force behind D.C. United's MLS championship run, will not return to the club next season. Nelsen, whose contract with MLS expires on Dec. 31, is close to reaching a deal with a club in England, a source close to the situation said.

United officials, aware of Nelsen's situation, did not include the New Zealand native on their 12-man protected list yesterday. Players not protected are available for selection in the MLS expansion draft, which will be held Friday to supply the new Salt Lake City and Los Angeles teams with established players. However, neither of those teams is expected to select Nelsen because of his imminent departure to England.

"We know Ryan has some real offers, and we just can't compete with those offers," United President Kevin Payne said. "It's a huge loss for us. He's been a terrific leader and, in my mind, he was the best defender in our league this year. It will be a real challenge trying to fill his spot."

Reached in Europe, Nelsen's agent, Lyle Yorks, said he could not comment at this time.

However, a source close to United and MLS said at least two teams in England's prestigious Premier League are pursuing Nelsen. "There's very, very serious interest, but no deal has been done yet," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were not complete. "Is it likely to happen? Yes."

The earliest Nelsen, 27, could join an English team is January. Nelsen, the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft from Stanford, played in only 17 of 30 regular season games this season because of injuries and New Zealand national team commitments. However, when he was available, United's defensive unit was among the finest in MLS. Last week, he was named to the Best XI, MLS's version of an all-pro team.

United and MLS recently made an offer to Nelsen that would have made him one of the top-paid defenders in the league (at least $200,000 annually), but he could earn two or three times more in England. Nelsen made an estimated $90,000 this year.

In anticipation of Nelsen's departure, Payne said United has been building a preliminary list of possible replacements, several from overseas. "We'll obviously pursue it with a lot more intensity now," he said.

With Nelsen leaving, United added reserve defender Brandon Prideaux to the protected list. Starting defender Mike Petke, whose contract also expires at the end of the year, was protected because the club is optimistic it can re-sign him. Payne said he planned to speak to Petke's agent, Ron Waxman, in the next week or so.

The key players who will be exposed in the expansion draft are goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who made 16 starts as a rookie this year; defender Ezra Hendrickson, who started eight regular season games and one playoff match after being acquired in June; and midfielder-forward Eliseo Quintanilla, a talented Salvadoran who missed the entire year with a broken leg.

Others left unprotected were forward Thiago Martins (out all year with a knee injury), seldom-used midfielders Kevin Ara and Tim Lawson, and starting midfielder Earnie Stewart, who announced after MLS Cup that he was going to return to his native Netherlands.

Notables around the league left unprotected were goalkeepers Tony Meola of Kansas City, Jonny Walker of the MetroStars and Henry Ring of Chicago; two-time MVP Preki of Kansas City; and longtime defender Jeff Agoos of San Jose. None of the current teams can lose more than three players in the expansion draft, which will have 10 rounds.

United Notes: Teenager Freddy Adu was called into the U.S. under-20 national team for friendlies against Honduras and Mexico this week in Florida.

D.C. United captain Ryan Nelsen could join a team in England's Premier League as soon as January.