With three teams in the preseason men's top 20, area college soccer will be, once again, among the most competitive and well-played in the country. Virginia, Maryland and George Mason are all considered contenders for the NCAA title, and a few other area teams have the potential to make the national rankings.

"There's a lot of parity this year, not only in the region, but also nationwide," Virginia Coach Bruce Arena said. "Week in and week out, I think you'll see a lot of good teams getting knocked off."

The same can be said of the women's teams. George Mason, an NCAA semifinalist last year, will be one of the teams other schools will be looking to knock off.

Here's an overview of the local teams (their ranking by Soccer America magazine and last year's record):

Virginia (6th, 17-2-2):

Last year, the Cavaliers had a 16-game win streak, and were ranked No. 1 in the country going into the NCAA tournament. But Loyola of Baltimore stunned the Cavaliers, 1-0, in the first round in Charlottesville.

"We were the best team in the country last year but we didn't prove it," Arena said. "We have the potential this year to be at the top again, but it's too early to tell."

The Cavaliers' attack this season will center around all-America John Harkes, a junior midfielder who had nine goals and seven assists last year. Arena thinks Harkes is the best all-around player in the country: "He's definitely the leading candidate for player of the year," said Arena, who has a 122-37-12 record in nine years.

The Cavaliers' other strength is goalkeeper Bob Willen, who had a school-record seven shutouts and a 0.48 goals-against average last year.

Maryland (12th, 14-4-1):

Put yourself in Coach Alden Shattuck's position. Your team has steadily improved the last several seasons. It made the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade last season and most of the squad is returning for 1987.

Then, unexpectedly, two of your best players leave school for personal reasons. Your hopes for the national title are gone, right? Oh, no. The Terrapins still are in great shape, thank you, even without Gary Furlong and Gino Ferrin.

"We're one of a dozen or so teams in the country that can win it all," Shattuck said. "Unfortunately, we have to play most of those other teams at our level."

Shattuck, who has a 29-9-2 record in two years at College Park, will count on junior Dom Macina in goal. Other experienced players to watch are Dan Simjoski, Dave Kasper, Chris Kolodziey, and Rockville's Gus DeLucia.

George Mason (16th, 10-5-5):

For the last two seasons, Gordon Bradley's teams have finished in the top 20, won their first-round tournament game and then lost in the round of 16. This season, the Patriots are loaded with talent again and could be the team to watch come playoff time.

"Definitely, we are talented on the field, but we need things to come together. Also, this schedule will really challenge us," said Bradley, who said he has lined up the toughest opponents in the country. "There are no easy games."

Bradley calls his goalkeeper, sophomore Martin Dunphy, "the best in the country." After becoming the starter midway through last season, Dunphy allowed only seven goals for a 0.53 goals-against average and five shutouts.

Offensively, Bradley expects big things out of Sam Sumo, whose goal production dropped from a school-record 24 in 1985 to 10 last year because of a foot injury.

American (10-9-3):

Coach Pete Mehlert has a decent front line and a talented midfield, but the Eagles' success will depend on how quickly the defense matures.

Mehlert, whose team made the NCAA final in 1985, has four goalkeepers, none of whom has Division I experience. At fullback, there are no returning starters and Mehlert has considered moving last season's leading scorer, Steve Marland (nine goals), to the defensive end.

The best of the defensive recruits are Rajindra Lalchan from Trinidad and stopper Iain McKenzie of Oakville, Ont., who was named to Canadian select teams.

The Eagles' strong point is at midfield with returning starters John Diffley and Mike Ioannou. Junior Frode Willumsen (four goals) and recruit John Kostelis, who holds the Connecticut high school scoring record, should contribute on the front line.

George Washington (10-6-2):

Former George Mason assistant George Lidster is the Colonials' new head coach, replacing Tony Vecchione, now an assistant at American.

Lidster should be successful right away as the team's top five scorers from last season are back. They are senior Orville Reynolds (nine goals), junior Kenny Emson (six goals, 11 assists), junior Paul Boulad (five goals), sophomore Evan Kyriazopoulos (four goals, five assists), and junior Clive Campbell (three goals).

Howard (6-7-3):

Last season, the Bison lineup included 14 freshmen. This season, Coach Keith Tucker has almost everyone back. "I'm confident this group will put on a good show," Tucker said.

The Bison's offense is led by a pair of sophomores, Waidi Akanni (seven goals) and Peter Isaacs (five goals). Senior Kenneth Beache and junior Barrington Watson will handle the goalkeeping duties.

Navy (10-6-3):

Dr. Greg Myers has a young team, but two new starters should have an immediate impact. Junior Mike Ulses replaces all-Colonial Athletic Association goalie Harry Schmidt, but Myers said "we don't lose anything in goal. Mike will do a good job." The other newcomer is Hal Zabrowski, from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, who transferred from Clemson.

Mark Hernandez (four goals) and John O'Brien (three goals, two assists) are the leading returning scorers.

Georgetown (8-10-2):

The Hoyas will be led by sophomore midfielder Andy Hoffman, who had five goals and five assists last season. Junior John Janenda, a field player most of last season, is the starting goalkeeper. Coach Keith Tabatznick says Janenda, who had four shutouts in his first five starts last season, will be the second-best goalie in the area, behind Dunphy of George Mason.

Catholic (8-11-1):

The Division III Cardinals will play only one Division I opponent, Navy, this season. With an easier schedule, the Cardinals should be competitive among small schools. Sophomore forward Pat Guerriero (11 goals) is the top player.

Others:

Gallaudet (7-8-1), coached by Patrick Atuonah, opens Sept. 15 at Lancaster Bible; UDC, coached by Albert Patty, hosts Lincoln University Sept. 5. In the junior college ranks, Montgomery-Rockville (14-4-1) won the state championship last season and will contend with Montgomery-Takoma Park (5-8) and Prince George's (10-6-3) for local bragging rights.

Women:

George Mason, ranked second behind defending champion North Carolina, won the NCAA title in 1985 and lost in the semifinals last year. Coach Hank Leung will depend on junior Dana Hedin to direct the offense and junior Yvonne Morris of Jefferson High School to protect the goal.

George Washington, coached by Adrian Glover, has eight returning starters from last season's 12-10 team. Senior Diane Kelly (29 goals) is the top offensive threat.

Virginia was 8-8-2 in only its second year last season and is led by Janet Caswell (11 goals, four assists).