United 3, MetroStars 0

It had been 26 days since D.C. United's last appearance at RFK Stadium, a gap that in previous seasons would have spelled trouble for the road-wretched club. But last night United returned to its inviting home after an almost inconceivable away stretch -- two victories and a tie to send it surging up the Eastern Conference standings.

Displaying renewed confidence and a persistent attack, MLS's defending champions set the tone on rookie defender Bobby Boswell's early goal, then withstood an unruly final 50 minutes to run away from the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, 3-0, before 11,883 appreciative spectators.

United (10-6-5) has won three straight, is unbeaten in its last five league matches (4-0-1) and, of great importance at this stage of the 32-game regular season, put six points between itself and the menacing MetroStars (7-7-8). D.C. remained four points behind front-running New England and moved within a point of Chicago in the ever-tightening division.

"All season long, we were working out the kinks and now things are finally coming together," said midfielder Josh Gros, who applied the finishing touches with an 87th-minute goal after Dema Kovalenko had made it 2-0 11 minutes earlier.

"At the beginning of the year, our defense would play well but we wouldn't score or we'd score and concede a lot of goals. Now we're settling down and playing well all over the field."

The victory came amid an acidic atmosphere. Two of the game's top players, the MetroStars' Amado Guevara and United's Jaime Moreno, were ejected on each side of halftime and referee Terry Vaughn issued seven yellow cards overall.

"It's just D.C.-MetroStars stuff -- that's how they all are and that's how it's going to be," said midfielder Ben Olsen, who got whacked by a late-arriving Guevara late in the first half, resulting in the first ejection. "That's the beautiful side of a rivalry -- it's heated, there's passion and maybe you want to beat them more than another team because it's such a heated rivalry."

Moreno was tossed 15 minutes into the second half, but goalkeeper Nick Rimando wasn't seriously bothered and was able to record his league-leading ninth shutout.

On United's first genuine opportunity, Christian Gomez served a free kick from the left side to the near post in the 11th minute. Boswell made a clean run between two defenders and met the ball three yards out, heading it into the top of the net as goalie Tony Meola stood by helplessly.

The nastiness intensified as the break approached, culminating with Guevara's exit. Already saddled with a yellow card, the Honduran midfielder cracked Olsen after the D.C. player had passed the ball from deep in his end. It took several minutes for the 2004 MLS most valuable player to leave the field, and when he reached the tunnel behind the north goal, he exchanged gestures with a group of fans before taking a brief rest in the Washington Nationals' dugout.

The second half began with excellent opportunities for both sides, but the most significant event came when Moreno knocked down Eddie Gaven from behind on a breakaway, his first red card in seven years. He will have to sit out Saturday's home match with Chivas USA, perhaps opening a starting slot for the rejuvenated Jamil Walker.

A moment after entering for Gomez, Walker collected Santino Quaranta's through ball, fought off Seth Stammler and crossed to Kovalenko for a simple finish. Later, Gros cut back and beat Meola with a bouncer inside the near post.

"Right now it's pretty smart soccer," Coach Peter Nowak said. "We have chances, we finish them."

United Notes: Argentine defender Facundo Erpen, who was introduced at a pregame news conference, will likely make his debut Tuesday in an exhibition at minor league Harrisburg (Pa.) before becoming eligible for league play Aug. 20 vs. Los Angeles. . . .

Boswell's goal was the 500th in United's regular season history, the most in MLS. It came in the club's 295th match. . . . United is 6-0-1 in its last seven meetings with the MetroStars.

Midfielder Josh Gros breaks away en route to scoring a goal in the 87th minute that gave United a 3-0 lead. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando recorded his league-leading ninth shutout. United fans congratulate Bobby Boswell after the defender scored in the 11th minute to give D.C. a 1-0 lead at RFK.