Pressured by stagnant attendance and increasing financial strains, the owners of the Washington area's three American Soccer League clubs have held preliminary discussions about merging into one team.

"We've talked about it a few times, but we're just in the discussion stage," Washington Stars owner John Koskinen said. "We had started to discuss it and we agreed to talk at the end of the season. I don't expect any clear-cut conclusions before the year is out."

One proposal has the Fairfax-based Stars, Columbia, Md.-based Maryland Bays and the Washington Diplomats becoming one entity after this season. The new club would play at the Diplomats' home field, RFK Stadium, starting next spring when the league is scheduled to begin its fourth season.

ASL Commissioner David Prouty said he is aware of the merger talks, but said the league "is not forcing this at all. . . . Some teams have known that at some appropriate point it would be good to discuss merging or combining teams. Maybe the time has arrived."

Bays owner John Liparini is in Italy attending the World Cup and was unavailable to comment.

Diplomats owner Julio Pinon said: "The nice thing is we have great relations between the owners. Off the field, we are very close friends. The possibility is there. We've had conversations, but I don't know if it will happen."

According to a written proposal by Koskinen dated June 8, each owner would have a one-third share of the new team with the possibility of additional parties buying into the franchise. The new entity would have a five-person board of directors.

Since its inception in 1988, the ASL has maintained its original 10 teams and added a franchise in Trenton, N.J., this season. An expansion team in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., area will begin play next year. Chicago was awarded a franchise last year, but it did not meet league requirements and was expelled.

"The league proved for three years it can go with the original 10 teams, and that was important to prove our stability," Prouty said. "Now it's time to look at other priorities and if we're going to be a recognized league, we need more capital. If in the fourth year we have to drop down to eight teams that are stronger than now, it won't hurt us and, in fact, it will help us."

The ASL merged in the spring with the Western Soccer League for marketing and business purposes to become the American Professional Soccer League. The only interleague play is a title game between each champion in September.

Seventy-five percent of APSL teams are losing money, Prouty said, but "that's normal for any young league." However, one ASL club has him "very concerned" and two others are "only a notch above" insolvency. He would not name the struggling franchises.

Pinon and Koskinen said they are losing money. "Somewhat more than we expected," Koskinen added.

Pinon has been accused by former players of issuing bad checks and owing money. The most recent conflict came last month when goalkeeper Charles Arndt complained to the league office in Jessup, Md., about a personal check from Pinon that he said was returned for insufficient funds.

Coupled with the resignation of coach John Ellinger a week earlier, Arndt told Pinon he no longer wanted to play for the Diplomats. A week later, he was sold to the Bays.

An RFK Stadium official said earlier this month that the Diplomats are behind in their payments for use of the facility and that the lease would not be renewed next year unless "they can prove they have more capital up front."

The Diplomats played their final game at RFK Stadium Sunday against the Bays. Washington has two more home matches (July 1 vs. Tampa Bay and July 22 vs. Miami), but concerts have forced the Diplomats to the adjacent field.

The team pays about $7,000 per game plus expenses for use of the stadium, but considerably less for the alternate field, RFK Stadium General Manager Jim Dalrymple said.

Also, team physician Stanford Lavine said his office had "severed services" with the club. He did not give a reason. Part-time trainer Dawn Olsen resigned last week to pursue a full-time job.

Koskinen -- president of Palmieri Co., and a liquidation specialist -- said he had heard rumors about the Diplomats' financial difficulties, but he is "comfortable with Julio as a partner" and would not shy away from a deal with him.

"The Diplomats obviously have had their ups and downs, but there's no one more enthusiastic than they are," Koskinen said. "Their financial problems are manageable. I wish {the problems} never happened, but they're not insurmountable problems."

League officials were hopeful of attendance increases this season after averaging about 1,600 fans per game in the first two years. Preseason tickets sales seemed to indicate a rise in support, but the Diplomats and Stars are below estimates. The Bays have benefited slightly by moving from UMBC Stadium in Catonsville to Columbia's Cedar Lane Park.

Overall, league attendance is down by more than 10 percent.

"The weather {on weekends} has been terrible, but it's not an excuse," Prouty said. "It's had a short-term impact, but what we need is for a better marketing effort on the part of the teams."

The Stars play home matches at W.T. Woodson High School, which is narrow and has a poor surface. When the league started, Koskinen expected to play at George Mason University, which has an ideal facility -- 5,000 capacity, perfect surface -- but the university denied his team access.

When the ASL began, each team had a three-year commitment to remain in the league, "but we recognize we must deal with reality and that reality is where to play . . . that's our biggest problem," Koskinen said.