Fortunately for American University, the NCAA championship soccer game Saturday against UCLA in the Kingdome (WETA-TV-26 at 10 p.m. EST) won't be decided by comparing endowments and campus acreage. It will be decided on the merits and effectiveness of two contrasting styles of play.

American (19-2-2), the little university off Ward Circle that never has won an NCAA team championship, will attempt to use its game of short, crisp passes that Coach Pete Mehlert refers to as "one-touch soccer." The Eagles will move the ball from the backline of defenders to the feet of their skillful midfielders. The midfielders will try to get it wide to the wings, who, in turn, will cross it in front of the goal.

"We like to keep the ball," said Mehlert. "We like to play it to each other's feet. We have the ability and the patience to do it."

American's game might be aided a bit on the Kingdome's artificial surface. "The turf will enable us to keep the ball," said Mehlert of an Eagles team that won both of its games on artificial turf this season.

UCLA, the academic and athletic colossus that has won 53 NCAA championships in all sports, has not played a game on artificial turf since 1983. But the turf is not expected to bother the Bruins, who prefer to play the ball into open spaces and chase after it.

"We tend to push the ball around and keep possession like they do," said UCLA Coach Sig Schmid. "Just from what I saw, the teams are a bit alike."

What Schmid saw was a few minutes of American in the Sunblazer Invitational Classic, in which UCLA also played. American won the event, beating Florida International, 2-1, in overtime and Tampa, also 2-1.

The Bruins beat Tampa, 4-2, but tied Florida International, 1-1. The mid-September sneak preview gave both coaches a chance to see the other's style.

"We're an American team," said Schmid, whose entire roster has California hometowns. "Our soccer is a reflection of environment and personality. In California, the kids get a lot of freedom and that lends itself toward creativity. California players are different from players on the East Coast and Midwest."

UCLA's most creative player is midfielder Dale Ervine, who leads the team with 15 goals and three assists. But the most eventful matchup should be Eagles striker Michael Brady, who was named Soccer America magazine's player of the year yesterday, against Paul Caligiuri, one of the country's finest stoppers and formerly the captain of the U.S. national team.

"Mike Brady is dominant in their attack," said Schmid. "Our game is more varied in the attack. We don't rely as much on one individual."

Brady, a three-time all-America, has 24 goals and eight assists this year.

"I like to mix a great (goal)keeper, a great sweeper and a great center midfielder," Mehlert said. His goalie is Stephen Pfeil, who has 11 shutouts this season and has allowed 12 goals in 22 games.

Pfeil is a transfer from Columbia (switching his major from engineering to economics) and might be the only player to play in two NCAA soccer finals for two different teams. But Pfeil, from Middle Village, N.Y., did not start for Columbia when it lost to Indiana, 1-0, in the 1983 final.

Another key ingredient on defense is sweeper Keith Trehy, a junior from London who has been known to take a bow after settling a ball to the ground with a flourish.

David Nakhid, the center midfielder from Trinidad, is the third player who makes the Eagles solid through the middle. Nakhid says he knows why American has succeeded.

"The team itself is the main factor," said Nakhid, the second-leading scorer with 10 goals and three assists. "It's such a team effort it's unbelievable. Every guy has to take a bow. The coach isn't responsible and Michael Brady isn't responsible. There's no one main factor."

The supporting cast includes Glen Buchanan, a defender from Annandale, outside back Troy Regis and forward Barry Henderson, who attended the same high school as Nakhid. There is also Serge Torreilles, the left outside back, who was born in Pau, France, and was named best soccer player in the country at the age of 14.

The midfield features John Diffley, a freshman from Clarkstown, N.Y., and Adrian Gaitan, who grew up on Long Island and came to American because he says he didn't have the grades for Duke or Columbia. And on the front line, there is Fernando Iturbe, the artful passer from Madrid who phoned Mehlert one day five years ago and told him he wanted to come to Washington.

These players and the team appear to have peaked as the season has come to a close. "Once you get into the final anything can happen," said Trehy. "I know this: we haven't played against a team that's better than us."