There was a time when forecasting the area college soccer scene was a snap: Howard would be way beyond everyone else, Maryland and George Washington would have solid teams and everyone else was closed out.

No more.

Howard still makes the NCAA playoffs nearly every year, but other teams, nationally and locally, have caught up with the Bison. And they have been winning with American players -- even at Howard, which did not have an American on its roster for more than 30 years.

Add the appointment of three new coaches and it becomes clear the old forecasts will not do. The 1981 season should be one without exceptional teams and players -- but many good ones -- and several question marks.

Any of four teams -- Howard, George Mason, George Washington and American -- could be the top team in the area. Howard was ranked 15th nationally and American 18th in one preseason poll.

Catholic should continue to rebuild, and the University of the District of Columbia should do well in Division II.

Navy appears to have lost the most through graduation and could have a tough year. Maryland, which stumbled last year (3-12), has a new coach in Joe Grimaldi and several new players. Georgetown (1-12-1 in 1980) has a new coach (ex-Dip Mike Dillon) and can only improve.

Most observers will be watching closely the situation at Howard. Lincoln Phillips, who led the Bison to the 1974 NCAA championship during 10 years as coach, was fired after disagreements with Athletic Director Leo Miles on the future of the soccer program. Keith Tucker, Phillips' assistant the last two years, is the new coach.

Tucker could be hard pressed to duplicate last year's success -- a 9-3-2 record and an NCAA postseason bid. The firing of the popular Phillips angered many of the players, but the soft-spoken Tucker, a 27-year-old native of Bermuda, appears to have gained their confidence with his low-key approach.

The Bison is set defensively with halfbacks Tony Amayo and Bancroft Gordon, defender Michael McPherson and goalie Gordon McPherson (no relation).

But Tucker is concerned about the offense. All-South forward Sylvanus Oriakhi and midfielder Ian Gage have graduated and Jacques Ladouceur, one of last year's leading scorers, is playing professionally in Greece.

Dick Broad, the coach at George Mason, can appreciate how he feels. The Patriots (10-4-3 in 1980) will have a solid defense led by stopper Scott Sekscienski and sweeper Michael Garrett, but Broad admits his offense has a way to go. Although there are no seniors, this is an experienced, well-coached team.

American, which dropped slightly last year (9-5-1) after gaining an NCAA bid in 1979, loses two important players, goalie Bill Ruvo and midfielder Eduardo Lopez. Coach Pete Mehlert expects his defense, led by fullbacks Charlie Davis and Kevin Germain, to be the team's strength. The offense is a question mark, but a turnaround by junior forward Mark DeBlois (one goal last year after 13 in 1979) would make a significant difference.

"It would be hard not to do better than last year," admits George Washington Coach Georges Edeline, who is not accustomed to having a .500 team (6-6-2). His forward line is young, although there is talent with sophomore winger Yared Aklilu and freshman Chris Falk, who scored 17 goals for Reston's South Lakes High School. Philip Smith heads a capable defense.

Maryland's Grimaldi has brought in 10 newcomers, including highly regarded goalie Ken Wilkerson from Montgomery-Rockville and striker Jay Casagranda from Prince George's Community College. Fullbacks George Reid and Jim Hudik will lead the defense.

Catholic (8-7-1) loses its top scorer, Jean-George Balla, who transferred, but any team with smooth midfielder Mejri Abdellaziz and goalie Bill Feehan is in good shape. UDC (11-3-1) has upgraded its schedule, but has a lot of talent back in striker Luis Romero (15 goals), Mustafa Fareshtevadi and defender Sean Kerns.

Navy Coach Greg Myers lost several players to graduation and admits his defense could be very suspect, although freshmen fullbacks Rob Cissel (Churchill High School) and Kenny Walls (Bowie) should help.