In the moments before he stopped a penalty kick last weekend, D.C. United goalkeeper Nick Rimando looked for an extra edge against Columbus's Mario Rodriguez. Rimando wasted time by taking a long swig of water, he walked toward his adversary, he pointed out to the referee that the ball was out of position -- every little trick he could think of to improve his long odds.

"I just tried to get in his head and mess with him a little bit," Rimando recalled yesterday. "But it all comes down to me guessing the right direction. All of that other stuff doesn't matter if I go the wrong way."

Perhaps rattled by the theatrics, Rodriguez's strike lacked authority. Rimando followed his instincts by pouncing to his right and blocking the attempt, a dramatic turning point during United's 1-0 victory over the Crew. In the final minute, Rimando smothered Chris Henderson's long-range shot targeted for the right corner of the net to secure the team's first win on the road in three months.

With United's season reaching the halfway point tonight against Kansas City at RFK Stadium, Rimando has reemerged as a vital element in the club's pursuit of a second consecutive MLS championship.

He's physically and mentally ahead of where he was last year, when he was slow to regain his form following a serious knee injury. He endured some dodgy performances and an extended benching before he regained his starting job and guided United through the postseason.

"This year he doesn't feel any pain, his strength is 100 percent and now mentally he's over the injury, and I think that's the biggest part of it," said assistant coach Mark Simpson, who oversees the team's three goalkeepers. "He's back to his old self again. He's quick as ever and has just as much spring in his step. Things are going well for him right now."

Since entering the league in 2000, Rimando has gained a reputation as an excellent shot blocker with quick reflexes but with a habit of misjudging crosses and high balls in the penalty area. This year he has made fewer mistakes and has rescued United on several occasions with sparkling saves. His second-half performance on June 18 helped United hand the New England Revolution its only loss of the season.

Rimando, 26, attributes his success to a productive preseason and a complete recovery from the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered in late 2003.

"They say you're back at six months [after major knee surgery], but for me and a lot of people, you're not comfortably back for a year and a half," he said. "It affected me last year. This offseason, I was finally able to work out a lot harder and prepare for the season.

"Now, just stepping on the field, you know you can get to balls and you know you can make the save, you know you're a step quicker coming off the [goal] line. The hardest thing for a goalkeeper is to be consistent, and I think being healthy and more mentally prepared has helped a lot."

Rimando has been able to stay ahead of Troy Perkins on the depth chart. Perkins, in his second year, has made only one appearance after starting 16 games last season.

Rimando has also taken a greater leadership role since the departure of all-star defender Ryan Nelsen, who's playing in the English Premier League. In recent weeks, the back line has comprised rookie Bobby Boswell, newly acquired John Wilson and veteran Brandon Prideaux.

"Nicky is taking charge back there," Simpson said. "He's had some average games but he's had some excellent games, too. We're counting on him to do the job."

United Notes: Forward Alecko Eskandarian (strained neck, concussion) will miss his third straight game. . . . Defender Bryan Namoff (groin/abdominal injury) underwent surgery in Germany and will be sidelined three to four weeks. . . . D.C.'s Ben Olsen and Santino Quaranta, and Kansas City's Josh Wolff and Jimmy Conrad are with the U.S. national team at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Wizards are also without midfielder Khari Stephenson (Jamaica). . . . Nelsen, on vacation from his English club, Blackburn Rovers, has been practicing with United.