Like the Washington Capitals, the United States men's field hockey team has climbed from oblivion to respectability since the '70s turned into the '80s.

"The U.S. was ranked 40th a few years ago and now we're in the 12 to 15 range and a serious contender for medals in the Pan American Games," said Tom Simpson of Chevy Chase, Md., a member of the North team that seems a sure bet to win the gold medal here at the National Sports Festival.

Tom, 22, enjoyed a few laughs at the expense of older brother Steve, 24, as the North thrashed Steve's East squad today, 6-1. It was a mixed pleasure, however, since the North contains eight national team starters and Tom saw limited action, while Steve went the full 70 minutes for the losers.

Tom's game has improved considerably in the last five months, which he spent in Australia training with a club that sponsored his visit. Australia, which recently thrashed India, 6-1, is considered the best in the world.

Steve Simpson, the secretary-treasurer of the five-team Potomac Field Hockey Association, believes that the U.S. has the potential to make further strides in the next few years, using the automatic berth in the 1984 Olympics as a lever.

"It helps every host country," Steve said. "Canada was not a power before 1976, but it's been in the top 10 since then, living off the boost it received from the initial exposure. Unfortunately, top 10 is no guarantee of success. There's a big difference between the top four and the rest."

The Simpsons learned field hockey in England, where they attended school for seven years while their father was on a Voice of America assignment in Rhodes.

"Field hockey was a mandatory sport for guys," Steve said. "I got involved in a lot of strange sports--hockey, squash, cricket and rugby."

The obvious difficulty in stimulating the sport in the U.S., aside from the frequent whistles that aggravate potential fans, is field hockey's image in this country as a sport for women.

"It's frustrating, but it seems like every interview starts out in that area," Tom said. "It's something we have to overcome. I'm tired of reading stories about field hockey where the first paragraph always begins, 'They don't wear skirts.' "