Over the past month, with its playing rhythm restored and its championship prospects revived, D.C. United couldn't resist peeking ahead to tonight's showdown with New England, MLS's front-runner most of the year.

United, which is four points behind the Revolution, had become increasingly convinced that it could move to the top of the Eastern Conference standings heading into the final stretch of the regular season. But the club's recent build-up to this crucial match at Gillette Stadium has left United as concerned about itself as with its opponent.

Last Saturday at RFK Stadium, D.C. didn't display its customary energy and imagination and saw its six-game unbeaten streak snapped by a staggering Los Angeles squad. Then on Wednesday, in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal at Maryland SoccerPlex, United faltered late in regulation and subsequently lost to Dallas in a penalty kick tiebreaker.

"We weren't smart enough to finish [Wednesday's] game off and we know what we did wrong," forward Santino Quaranta said yesterday. "The fight and effort were there, and that's what you look at, but it was still a tough loss. This weekend will show a lot about our character."

United's performances couldn't be traced to one faulty area. The attack, short-handed by injuries, created ample scoring opportunities in both matches, while the defense rebounded from last weekend's sub-par effort to blank Dallas's lethal front line until second-half injury time.

However, the club didn't manage the final few minutes of Wednesday's match with its usual precision and let a one-goal lead slip away. Although United was down a man following Dema Kovalenko's ejection in the 72nd minute, the club couldn't offer any excuses for yielding Carlos Ruiz's late equalizer.

"We know we should do better at the end of the game," Coach Peter Nowak said. "We know we were supposed to win, but we cannot feel sorry for ourselves. It's another lesson learned, which is good before an important game."

Nowak is cautiously optimistic that team captain Jaime Moreno will be available tonight after spraining his foot during the MLS select squad's 5-0 loss to Real Madrid on Tuesday in Spain. Moreno, who leads the team in goals (10) and is tied for first in assists (six), practiced the past two days and seemed to move well with and without the ball.

"It's a little bit sore, but I hope I will be all right," he said. "I just hope it doesn't get hurt again."

Said Nowak: "We'll see how he feels, and then we'll make a decision. We have a tough stretch in the schedule coming up, so we have to be smart about it."

Nowak has the option of using Moreno or Freddy Adu, who has returned from a sprained knee, alongside the versatile Quaranta. It seems unlikely both Moreno and Adu would start, given their recent injuries.

United will be without defender Bryan Namoff, suspended for one game after receiving a red card in the previous league match. His slot will be taken by Facundo Erpen of Argentina, who made an impressive debut Wednesday.

New England has bigger personnel concerns. Former United goalie Doug Warren will make his first start of the year in place of all-star Matt Reis, who is serving a red-card suspension. Midfielder Clint Dempsey (eight goals, eight assists) can't play either, because of an accumulation of yellow cards.

United Notes: Quaranta will report to U.S. national team training camp in Ohio tomorrow to prepare for next weekend's World Cup qualifier against Mexico and the Sept. 7 qualifier at Guatemala. He is expected to miss two MLS games: Wednesday vs. Salt Lake City and Saturday at Colorado. . . .

Former University of Maryland player Ian Rodway (Wilde Lake High) began workouts yesterday and could be offered a developmental contract soon. If that were to happen, forward Jamil Walker likely would be upgraded to senior roster status. Rodway can play defensive midfield and outside back.