In the heat of a Washington summer, with no baseball team to draw fans, soccer's about the only spectator sport in town.

Though the Washington Diplomats have been plagued by injuries lately, they yell "Take the field!" at 2:30 Sunday against the Houston Hurricane, trying to win the last of a three-game set for the hometown fans.

Among the fans are certain to be a lot of kids.

In this country, soccer is primarily a game of the younger generation: They've played it in school -- most American adults didn't -- and they serve as the linesmen and often as the referees during the fall and spring youth club seasons.

But most important, they know what adults seem to value: that you don't have to weigh 300 pounds or stand seven feet tall to play this game.

The inroads that young Americans have made into the sport became obvious recently when Dips' coach Gordon Bradley decided to play rookies Steve Byrd, 20, and Barney Boyce, 19, against Rochester. Byrd was formerly a student at Old Dominion University, and Boyce was first spotted by Bradley when he was 16, fresh out of St. Louis.

The Dips even have a bona fide hometown boy: Kip Germaine, whose father, Everett, is president of the Annandale Boys' Club. Kip played for the club's Cavaliers, and went to William and Mary.

Kids also realize that soccer is a good game to watch in person -- they like it for exactly the same reason it doesn't lend itself to television.

Soccer keeps moving, without time-outs that make room for commercials. And because it doesn't rely on set plays, it comes across as a free-form sport, dependent on the agility and endurance of each player.

The Dips know this, too.

During the school year, they visit schools to talk up the home games and give demonstrations. Now that school's out, players are appearing at local parks. The Dips' public-relations office says groups of 20 or more can schedule two-hour clinics at $50 per Diplomat.

In addition, this will be the first year that the team offers Camp Gityurkiks, an extended soccer clinic lasting three hours on four successive afternoons and several locations.

If you and your kids show up at RFK Stadium Sunday just for soccer, you'll already have missed some of the fun.

The game starts at 2:30, but beginning at 12:15 in Parking Lot 8 you can have all the ice cream (Farrell's), Coke and Budweiser you want, plus a free hog dog (Eskay) per person at a tailgate party. WPGC disc jockeys Gim Elliott and Scott Woodsie will be on hand as well.

You've got to be among the first 5,000 to arrive, though, or you'll be shuffled off to another parking lot, on the outside looking in. That's what happened at the Cosmos game to a lot of youngsters who thought they were going to get free Adidas soccer balls: Those who arrived at 12:30 were already late, and their spirits intially were as deflated as the balls they saw the other kids carrying around in plastic bags.

You can always bring your own cooler, sandwiches or whatever, as long as you don't bring glass bottles or metal cans into the stadium. Soccer fans already have a reputation for being rowdy, and RFK Stadium management lives in fear of a spontaneous melee or a random bottle thrown from the stands.

(Contrary to rumor, the object that decked a linesman at the Dips-Cosmos game was not a bottle, but a hunk of ice, the Dips' public-relations folk say.)

RFK Stadium also sells edibles, soft drinks and beer at slightly inflated prices, as well as pennants and other paraphernalia. We brought our own food and a cooler that my husband refilled with ice water at the stadium. Our teenage daughters used the game as a head start on a summer tan. Fortunately for our kindergartner, someone had grabbed a sun hat before we left home to protect her face.

If the Houston game lasts as long as the Cosmos game did -- with two overtimes and a shootout -- you'll be at the sun's mercy until at least 5 o'clock. Fans in the east side seats have been known to cheer when a cloud blocks the afternoon sun. If it rains, that's another story -- soccer games, like Broadway shows, go on anyway.

Kids of eight or older probably won't become bored, even if the afternoon stretches on.

Our five-year-old grew weary, but as a member of the television generation, she loved the animated board at the south side of the stadium, with its stomping boots, clapping hands, cheers, information and commericals. No matter what the Diplomats' Sidekicks cheerleaders did, when the board showed stomping feet, the kids stomped. During the Cosmos game, with a record attendance of more than 53,000, there were a lot of stomping sneakers.

Although soccer may be what you're there for, the Dips are trying not to miss a trick to appeal to fans.

Each game, two ticket stubs are drawn for prizes -- a tape recorder is typical; the team's mascot, the Diplomaniac, is on hand to encourage a few extra cheers; and this Sunday, two pre-game features are scheduled: youth games between Braddock Road Youth Club team from noon to 2, and a Jhoon Rhee karate demonstration at 2.

Admittedly, if you came just for soccer, the rest is a lot of schlock, but nobody, not even RFK Stadium General Manager Robert Isgholtz, expected the record turnout for the Cosmos game. The draw may have been the free Adidas soccer balls.

There won't be any free soccer balls Sunday, and Houston isn't expected to cart its cheerleaders along as the Cosmos did, but if you get there for the tailgate picnic, even a full-price ticket looks like a bargain. It seems there is indeed a free lunch after all.