The shot by the Dallas player had deflected off goalkeeper Nick Rimando and was bounding toward D.C. United's net, almost certain to tie last weekend's MLS match early in the second half.

"I got a piece of it, but I was thinking it had enough power on it to go in," Rimando recalled. "I'm looking back there and just hoping someone gets to it pretty quickly."

Brian Carroll knew he would arrive in time, knifing toward the net behind the fallen Rimando, but it was a tricky situation. If he used his stronger leg, his right, the ball would cross the goal line before he could make contact. And if he didn't strike it hard enough, a fast-approaching Dallas player could deflect it past him.

"I just made my way toward the line," he said yesterday. "I knew I had to use the outside of my left foot and clear it as far as I could. A few more inches and it would have been too late."

Carroll's timely clearance kept United's lead intact and helped the club go on to a 2-1 road victory. It also epitomized Carroll's importance to United and showed why Coach Peter Nowak has turned to the West Springfield High School graduate again and again the last two years.

Carroll, a quietly efficient defensive midfielder, will likely make his 58th consecutive league appearance tonight against the Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium after not playing one minute as a rookie under then-coach Ray Hudson in 2003.

"Not only this play in Dallas, but he makes a lot of plays," Nowak said. "We found a good spot for him where he can really be himself. There aren't too many guys in the league who accept that kind of job. You can see the progress."

Carroll, who left Wake Forest a year early, led United in minutes last season and is third this year, behind defender Bobby Boswell and midfielder Josh Gros. He scored his first career goal last month at Chicago and has contributed three assists, but more importantly, he has served as a critical link between United's defensive and attacking elements.

United plays with two holding midfielders behind playmaker Christian Gomez, and Carroll is usually paired with veteran Ben Olsen.

"Brian can cover so much of the field," Rimando said. "He's very calm out there. He plays hard, but he doesn't have that anger to him. That's who he is. He's a quiet person off the field, but when it comes game time, he wants to win more than anybody else."

While his work ethic and defensive skills have been solid, Carroll has struggled at times with his passing. "We need to clean up a few things," Nowak said. "Sometimes the distribution is not there, the passing could be better."

Nonetheless, it has been a productive couple of years for Carroll, 24, in his home town. He vividly remembers tailgating with friends and family before United matches and attending the 1997 MLS Cup between D.C. and Colorado during a cold rainstorm at RFK. His younger brothers are also quality players: Jeff, a senior at St. John's, and Pat, a sophomore at West Virginia.

"Playing all last year and working in practice this year, it has really given me the confidence to go out every day and play hard," Brian Carroll said. "With each game, it has given me a chance to play more and learn more things. You can see where your game can go. It's always testing you."

United Notes: Club officials are hoping their new Argentine forward, whom they decline to identify until the visa process is completed, will be available in 10-14 days. . . . Fabian Dawkins, a high-scoring forward from Jamaica, performed well during a tryout this week, but the club was unable to reach a deal with his current team, the minor league Atlanta Silverbacks, before Thursday's roster deadline. . . . Colorado has eight players with D.C. area connections: former United players Mike Petke and Eric Denton, as well as Ritchie Kotschau (George Mason U.); Hunter Freeman (U-Va.); Leo Cullen (Maryland); Dan Gargan (Georgetown); Kyle Beckerman (Arundel High); and Amir Lowery (Wilson High).

Brian Carroll, right, battling Dallas's Mark Wilson, is a key link between United's defensive and attacking elements.