No matter how much more money he figured he was going to lose, no matter how cloudy his team's future, Maryland Bays owner John Liparini was determined to enjoy himself this season.

"I sat down with {Coach} Pete Caringi and told him we were going to have some fun this season," Liparini said. "Win or lose, we were going to play the game the way we wanted to play -- show some personality, score some goals and have some fun.

"We expected to have fun, I just didn't expect so many people around me to have as much fun."

Five months later, the Bays, champions of the American Soccer League, will play the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks for the American Professional Soccer League title. The game will be tonight at 8 at Boston University's Nickerson Field.

The Blackhawks are the champions of the Western Soccer League, which, for business and marketing purposes, merged last year with the ASL to become the APSL.

The winner of tonight's game will play the Vancouver 86ers, champions of the Canadian Soccer League, next Wednesday in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Regardless of tonight's outcome, the Bays have exceeded everybody's expectations, both on and off the field. They moved from UMBC Stadium in Catonsville to Cedar Lane Park in Columbia because they wanted to build support in the soccer-rich Howard County community. They did, drawing more than 1,600 fans per game, including 3,116 for the first game of the ASL championship series against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

Because of high operating deficits accumulated over two years, Liparini had been considering a merger next season with the area's other ASL teams. Now, it appears the Bays will return to Columbia.

The Bays wanted to play a fresh and entertaining style of soccer, not often seen among U.S. (or, for that matter, European) professional teams. They did. Using the speed and skill of the ASL's most valuable player, Phillip Gyau, and playoff scoring leader Jean Harbor, the Bays set a league record with 42 goals in 20 regular season games. Then they scored 11 in four playoff victories.

"It's time to finish the dream season," said Caringi, architect of the high-scoring attack.

It's been almost a month since the Bays captured the ASL title, but after a 10-day layoff, they've been practicing three times a week.

Caringi, the coach at nationally ranked Essex Community College near Baltimore, had to move his team's match against Montgomery-Rockville, scheduled for today, to Sunday to accommodate the Bays' schedule.

While Maryland is led by Gyau (14 goals), Harbor (13), goalkeeper Steve Powers (1.26 goals-against average) and a strong supporting cast, the Blackhawks will look to U.S. national team players Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa.

"We had a long layoff and Sept. 22 seemed a long way off," Caringi said. "But this week the concentration level increased and everyone's getting more excited about the game. This is what we've worked for."