Parity. It's good for the fans and better for the sport, but it's tough on soccer teams vying for the few postseason playoff bids.

In the preseason Mid-Atlantic poll, Howard, American, George Mason and George Washington were ranked consecutively behind No. 1 Virginia, William and Mary and Loyola of Baltimore.

The region is guaranteed two bids to the NCAA tournament, but can receive as many as four. Last season, Virginia and William and Mary received invitations.

The four Washington-area schools will play each other in the Capital Collegiate Conference. However, the teams' comparable talent may prohibit one from emerging as clearly superior.

If parity prevails, these teams will have to play excellent soccer against nonleague opponents in order to gain the attention of the tournament selection committee. George Mason has already displayed that ability -- the Patriots opened by BEATING North Carolina-Wilmington, 3-0, and Tuesday routed VMI, 5-0.

American: Coach Pete Mehlert expects the competition to be tight once again in the CCC and in the ECAC South, where American will be playing for the first time.

Junior Michael Brady (12 goals, 11 assists), a first team all-America, is an threat at striker or midfielder. Senior goalkeeper Steve Giordano, a three-year starter, yielded less than one goal per game last year.

Catholic: The Cardinals are strongest on defense. However, first-year Coach Paul Moyer realizes that four returning defensive starters (sweeper Jim Healy, stopper Tom Pauly, and outside backs John Sheridon and John Miller) can't make Catholic competitive if the offense doesn't produce. Last year, in a 6-12-2 season, Catholic scored only 13 goals.

Center forward Tommy Khoo, injured most of last season, is expected to generate offense.

George Mason: The Patriots lost their leading scorer, Colin Kerr (19 goals, seven assists), from a 12-6-2 team, but Dick Broad's team doesn't have many weaknesses. In their first two games, the Patriots outscored the opposition, 8-0.

Ken Bernstein, a three-year starter in goal, has a school-record 35 shutouts; Mike Reynolds (10 goals, five assists), second to Kerr in point production last season, already has scored twice. Midfielder Gary Kingley, a transfer from Wake Forest, is another offensive threat.

Georgetown: First-year Coach Keith Tabatznick inherits a 4-10-1 team that lacks experience. Tabatznick's lineup will include such sophomores as midfielder Andy Pelletier and fullback Dan Janney and a handful of freshmen. Striker Ismael Gonzalez and midfielder Philippe Paddack will provide the offensive spark.

George Washington: The Colonials, after a 9-6-3 season, will be competitive with Howard, American and Mason. Senior striker Ameha Aklilu (seven goals, three assists), the leading scorer, returns although his older brother Yared, the second-leading scorer, has graduated.

GW is young, but once again Coach Tony Vecchione has replenished his roster by tapping the Canadian-Washington pipeline, adding three freshmen from the province of Ontario. There are six Canadians on the roster.

On Tuesday, GW opened its season with Gus Gatti getting two goals and two assists in a 5-0 victory over Catholic.

Howard: Fifteen lettermen return from last year's 10-4-2 team. Games with William and Mary and Loyola of Baltimore are pivotal if Howard is to stand out in the region.

Coach Keith Tucker has moved junior Ronald Simmons, a natural passer, from defense to midfield. Senior Christopher Hunt will also be covering more ground at sweeper than he did at fullback last year.

Maryland: Joe Grimaldi has 13 returning players (11 lettermen) from last year's 5-9-3 team (1-4-1 in the ACC). The Terrapins are solid at midfield with juniors Desmond Armstrong and Tom Farran and sophomore Dave Kasper. Midfielder Peter Cuggan (seven goals, one assist) has been moved to the front line. Fullback Jeff Larue and goalkeeper Steve Powers will anchor the defense.

Navy: Coach Greg Meyers retains 12 players and most of his starters from a 7-8-2 team. Sophomore goalkeeper Dave Postoll was effective last season, allowing 1.39 goals per game and shutting out his last three opponents. Up front, John Moraytis (three goals, one assist) and Rob Cissel (two goals, one assist) are experienced but need to score more.

UDC: The Firebirds finished 11-5 last year, but missed the Division II playoffs. The acquisition of center-forward Julius Adajma, a transfer, has enabled Coach Juan Zenzano to juggle his lineup. Paul Emordi (14 goals) will play fullback this year. Emordi and Osa Osunde will form the backbone of the defense.

Virginia: The Cavaliers are ranked third nationally in the preseason poll after reaching the NCAA semifinals last season, when they were 16-5. Virginia has 12 Washington-area players on its roster, including Gaffney (Whitman High School) and goalie Keith Lenert (Annandale).

Others: Montgomery-Rockville won the Maryland state junior college championship last year and finished 12-5-1, but has only five returning players. Coach Tom Bichy retains his goalkeeper, Sean Logan, and his second-leading scorer, Paul Custead (eight goals, two assists) . . . Montgomery Takoma was 10-3-1 last year, but halfback Felipe Silva and midfielder Derek Guyadeen are the only returning starters.

Gallaudet completed its eighth consecutive winning season, 8-4. But with only seven returning players, Coach Marty Minter will be tested to continue the streak . . . At Washington Bible, Coach Jeff Wheeler is in a rebuilding year after finishing 8-6-3 last season.