Just three weeks ago, a home playoff game seemed impossible for the Maryland Pride women's amateur soccer team.

The Pride -- involved in a four-team race in the USL W-League's Northern Division, from which only two clubs would qualify for the playoffs -- appeared done for the season after two road losses.

The Pride, which took three youth players on the trip to North Carolina to fill out a roster depleted by absences, was overwhelmed by the defending champion Raleigh Wings, 7-0, on July 17. Maryland was unable to recover by the next day, losing to the Charlotte Speed, 3-2. The losses left the Pride in a difficult position: win road games at Delaware and New Jersey the following weekend or miss the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

But behind the stellar goalkeeping of Allison Wolf and boosted by the return of several players who had been competing in the U.S. amateur championships the previous weekend, the Pride (10-4) recorded shutout victories July 23 and 24, clinching its division title and a third straight playoff appearance. Maryland will face the Long Island Lady Riders at 7:30 tonight at Richard Montgomery High in Rockville.

The W-League, the highest level of women's soccer in the United States behind the national teams, is a two-tiered league with 34 teams in 19 states.

The Pride consistently has been among the elite, winning the championship in 1996 and advancing to the semifinals in 1997 and 1998.

To advance to the final four next weekend in Raleigh, the Pride must defeat a Long Island team that has won two league titles and become one of Maryland's fiercest rivals, beating the Pride twice this season.

"It's exciting to be in the playoffs, and especially against Long Island," Pride veteran Peggy McCarthy (William & Mary) said.

"It always seems to come down to the two of us. It's always been a good rivalry -- we don't like them and they don't like us."

The Lady Riders also finished 10-4, but will travel to Rockville without goalkeeper Kim Wyant, an ex-national teamer who suffered a career-threatening Achilles' tendon rupture on July 28.

Arlington native Collette Cunningham leads the Pride in scoring and is fifth in the league with 11 goals and three assists. Denise Schilte, the head coach at UMBC, has scored five and McCarthy has chipped in four.

Maryland's clutch performance on the last weekend of the regular season and the rising interest in women's soccer has Pride Coach Carolyn Rice hopeful that tonight will be the start of something big.

"This is a huge year for women's soccer. We have an outstanding, home-grown team and we know that soccer right now is a billboard sport," she said. "If we ever want to see a professional league, we're the people who have to be the pioneers. . . . We are definitely excited about it."