After his nightmare season last year, it is no surprise that Team America defender Bruce Savage is shy, quiet and keeps to himself.

With Fort Lauderdale in 1982, Savage and Team America teammate Dan Canter were labeled the "Nightmare Twins" and were blamed for the team's poor defense by their coach. It was said that Savage's citizenship was all that kept him on the field. His confidence disintegrated.

The abuse was so bad Savage stopped reading the newspapers and talking to the press. "All they wanted to write was the bad stuff," he said yesterday.

But since seeking refuge with Team America in February, Savage's game has undergone a remarkable transformation. No longer bullied and blamed, he has developed into one of the best fullbacks in the North American Soccer League.

"Bruce is one of the best soccer players America has ever produced," said Team America Coach Alkis Panagoulias, whose team will play the Montreal Manic today at RFK Stadium at 2:30 p.m. (WWDC-1260). "Everybody thought I was gambling when I picked him for the team, but from the first week I saw he was something special."

Certainly Savage has emerged as one of Team America's most dependable players. He has played every minute of every game at right fullback and has singlehandedly saved three goals, clearing shots off the line after they eluded the goalkeeper.

"Bruce is like an institution. Dan (Canter) and I never have to worry about the right side," said center fullback Jeff Durgan, the team's captain. "Bruce is so strong, mentally and physically . . . to me he's the best right fullback in the league."

"He is good," said Golden Bay midfielder Stan Terlecki, a veteran of the Polish leagues, who was tightly marked by Savage when the teams played at RFK Stadium May 27. "I have not seen a better American player."

Only 22, Savage was all-America at Miami Dade-North Community College before being a first-round draft choice of the Atlanta Chiefs in 1980.

He played every game for the Chiefs in 1980 and 1981, but the team folded and Savage was picked up by the Portland Timbers in the dispersal draft.

"That's the first time the game really seemed like a business to me," said Savage. "I didn't want to go to Portland. I wanted to stay closer to home."

Savage was signed by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and started at left back in 29 games last year for the team. But the Strikers' abundance of international stars often meant most of the players concentrated on offense, pressuring the opposition, leaving Savage and Canter alone on defense.

As a result, Fort Lauderdale allowed a league-high 74 goals.

"We had some of the best players in the world, but they all went for it. They all went for the goals," said Savage. "I don't think Dan and I deserved the reputation we got."

With Team America, Savage has had the opportunity to develop his offensive ability. Because Panagoulias likes the defense to run through the midfield and collect balls down the flanks, Savage has found himself increasingly involved in the team's offense. Against the Cosmos on June 8, he almost scored his first professional goal.

"This is a different role than I've had before," said Savage. "I never had the chance to go forward before. I'm starting to feel comfortable pushing the ball upfield now."

Savage's relaxation on the field has translated to his demeanor off it. He remains for the most part quiet and unwilling to talk about himself, but he recognizes his growth as a player. Savage won't say he's good, but one gets the impression he finally knows it.

"I am very impressed with his level-headedness," said 32-year-old teammate Alan Merrick. "He came to training camp without a lot of confidence in his ability. But in my mind, he's matured into one of the best fullbacks in the country."