American University's NCAA semifinal victory over Hartwick last weekend epitomized the paradox that confronts college soccer.

While enthusiasm, attendance and the quality of play in the match all were high, suggesting strong interest in the sport, it was dominated by foreign players. Only eight of the 22 players who started the game are U.S. citizens, symptomatic of a direction in which some coaches worry the game may be heading.

"The current trend is taking away opportunity for American kids to play at American schools," said Virginia Coach Bruce Arena, who, along with coaches at Duke, Clemson, Connecticut and UCLA has been successful with U.S. players.

"Foreign players are easy to sign and a number of schools have taken advantage of that fact," said Connecticut Coach Joe Morrone. "They all want to come here now."

To compete, lesser-known programs such as those at American U., George Mason, Evansville and Hartwick, all of which reached the 1985 NCAA tournament, have had to use both U.S. players and those from other countries, where soccer is the dominant sport instead of the baseball, basketball and football that are the passions here.

"Unlike football and basketball, in soccer there are a limited number of Americans at the top level," said AU's Coach Pete Mehlert.

In Saturday's national championship game in Seattle, for example, AU's roster will include nine foreign players. The Eagles' opponent, UCLA, has none.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, which once dominated the NCAA tournament with teams built largely around the skills of African and West European players, there has been a commitment to U.S.-born athletes. Yet Virginia, Duke and Clemson still are among the nation's top teams.

These schools have been able to regularly sign the top native-born players. This past year, Virginia signed four Parade high school all-Americas, including Parade's player of the year, John Harkes.

Mehlert believes he understands why these schools succeed in attracting the top players.

"You first think about academics and the programs offered and the quality of life," Mehlert said. "Generally, a school like Duke is associated with all these factors. Where does that leave schools like Long Island, Fairleigh Dickinson, Fresno State and San Francisco?

"If these schools have full-time coaches and their job is to win, what's left? Second-rate American players. Do you think you can win a national championship with that?"

The influx of foreign players has raised the general level of play across the country, easing the stranglehold teams such as St. Louis and Indiana held on the sport in the mid-1970s. Other factors have made programs more competitive.

Coaches say that many athletic departments in the past few years have begun allocating more resources for soccer facilities, scholarships, recruiting and travel, fueling the desire for top players.

Maryland is an example. In 1984, the Terrapins finished 7-10-1 and Athletic Director Dick Dull decided the school had ceased to be competitive within the South Atlantic region and the conference. He hired a new coach, Alden Shattuck from Syracuse, gave him a full complement of 11 scholarships, up from the previous nine, and resodded the field with Bermuda grass.

Shattuck says he was hired too late to compete for the top U.S. recruits and his only option was to turn abroad. He brought in five foreign freshmen and had a successful season, finishing 15-5-1.

Many programs, such as the one at American, do not have 11 full scholarships. In fact, the Eagles have only two full scholarships and eight for tuition only. And at such a school, the foreign-born player is often attractive for another reason.

"The foreign player is willing to accept less of a scholarship," said Mehlert. "They want to come to America and we can offer them a chance to play quality soccer and continue their education. They can't always do that abroad."