When North American Soccer League officials gathered for their annual Soccer Bowl week of parties and meetings last year in Washington, 24 teams were represented. They came to town on a wave of optimism, making the week a festive one from start to finish.

Twelve months later, 16 survivors came to the capital of Ontario, looking over their shoulders at the eight who have fallen as if to say, "It could just as easily have been me."

But in many ways, the atmosphere here has been surprisingly upbeat. The reason: most of those who remain look at those who are gone and say good riddance.

"Finally, this league is calm and facing reality," said Clive Toye, the president of the Toronto Blizzard. "Last year, when we faced the prospect of losing clubs, everyone said, 'Oh, my God, what now?' Now, the attitude is, 'Okay, let's go from here.' "

Everyone from Commissioner Phil Woosnam on down concedes that the mistakes of recent months have been myriad; that the league's dreams became too grandiose too soon.

"It's a simple case of people trying to force something that wasn't ready to be forced," said Dick Cecil of the defunct Atlanta Chiefs. "They've had to learn everything the hard way."

Those who have learned the hardest lessons are those connected with the sport in Washington. Two years and two teams down the drain. The final humiliation came this week when the chief operating officer of this year's Diplomats, Duncan Hill, left the country. The team still owes creditors $1.7 million.

The second Diplomat disaster was set up last February when 20 of the league's 21 owners voted to allow the Detroit Express to move into Washington, even though the franchise was lacking in funds and already facing huge debts.

"But if we hadn't let them move they might not have survived the season," said Steve Caspers, the NASL's marketing director. "Should we have just let them die?"

"Absolutely," said Toye, the only league executive to vote against the move. "What has happened to Washington is a crime."

The NASL still hasn't turned a corner toward the kind of financial solvency most corporations seek when they run sports franchises. The exception is Warner Communications, the parent company of the omnipotent Cosmos, the dominant club in the league. Warner spares no expense where the Cosmos are concerned. This week, for example, there were no fewer than 10 people here from the Cosmos whose sole responsibility was to keep the players' families entertained.

Still, much of the attention this week was focused on the Cosmos' opposition, the Chicago Sting. Quietly, most league officials were hoping for a Chicago victory. After seven years of struggle, Chicago is on the verge of making it. And, in this league, anyone making it is big news.

"They win and their franchise is made," said one league official. "We need that right now."

The league has had a dreadful year. Eight teams died; network TV consisted of Sunday's tape delay of the Soccer Bowl on ABC; attendance dropped in many places, and the Cosmos even declined steadily because of a lack of competition.

"What we have to do now," said Toye, who is likely to leave Toronto before year's end, "is look at those in the league who are doing things best and copy them. Whoever has the best marketing, study them; whoever has the best publicity, and so on."

Sunday, the five clubs who failed to put up their performance bonds for the indoor season -- Washington, Atlanta, California, Dallas and Calgary -- will officially be ousted. Some people in Calgary were trying for an 11th-hour turnaround but no one seemed very interested in listening.

"Most people want 16 teams right now," Woosnam said. "The attitude is, if you're out, you're out."

Perhaps the easiest way to gauge what has happened to the league in the last year was to attend the annual awards banquet, a $125-a-plate affair. Last September in Washington, Henry Kissinger sat on the dais, Sonny Werblin held court at a front-of-the-room table and Jim McKay was the master of ceremonies. The room was packed.

This year, Kissinger was nowhere in sight and Werblin was present only in the minds of those who remembered him predicting accurately many of the ills that have befallen the NASL this year.

This year, there were empty seats and the master of ceremonies was Monty Hall, the "Let's Make a Deal" host. As Hall was introduced, there was some noticeable snickering in the back of the ballroom. One executive of a healthy team couldn't resist:

"Watch this," he said, "Monty's going to offer to trade Woosnam curtain No. 3 for the entire league. And you know what? Phil might do it."

Hall offered no deals. He did make one comment, though: "This is the first dinner I've been to where there were more people at the head table than in the audience."

Nervous laughter.

Then, he introduced Woosnam. As the commissioner rose to speak, the head waiter gave his men the signal to begin clearing the appetizer. As a result, the din was so loud, no one could hear Woosnam as he began to talk.

Woosnam, as always, smiled through it all. His speech, as usual, centered on the great growth in the game of soccer: the kids playing the game, the corporate interest that is continuing.

So the NASL will survive, more humble and hopefully smarter because of the last year.