"If we'd had this team at the beginning of the season, we'd be undefeated," boasted Washington Diplomat defender Alex Pringle. "We are as strong as any team in the league, now."
Few around the North American Soccer League would dispute that statement, particularly since the Dips have reeled off four straight victories and have looked more impressive each time out.
Pringle, obtained in a trade from Tampa Bay, is joined on defense by Don McAllister, Ken Hill and the sweeper back dubbed the Secretary of Defense, Jim Steele.
"It's pretty tight now. Not too many teams will get through us," said Steele, known for his aggressive tactics. "Now we have four very experienced players back there and none of us are old men."
The defensive unit anchored by goalie Eric (Goldfinger) Martin shoots for its third straight shutout tonight when it visits the Rochester Lancers. Game time is 8 o'clock.
The Lancers are only 2-4 but have won 13 straight at home over two years. They split 2-1 decisions with Washington last year.
"They don't lost at home and we aren't used to losing anymore," said Steele.
While Washington coach Dennis Viollet has been pleased with his defense, which ranks second in the league in goals allowed (seven), it is the offense that has suddenly come alive.
Bob Stokes, Mike Lester, Jimmy Redfern and Alan Green, the last of the offseason English recruits to arrive, have begun to jell as a unit.
Stokes has scored nine points (four goals, one assist) in three games, while Green knocked in two goals in his first game.
"We understand each other a bit better now," said Stokes, who began playing with Southampton of England at the age of 15. "We'll improve even more. As long as our defense is playing the way it is, you can stay in the game. Maybe, even steal a few goals."
Viollet said the frustration felt by the club after one victory in four games is over.
"We were always so close but yet so bloody far away from winning," said Viollet. "We lost to Tampa in the last minute, lose to Fort Lauderdale when they scored in the first minute. But now, we're beginning to show the qualities of being a good team. We've got strength all the way through."
Three years ago, Viollet would not have sent in anyone from the bench. Now, he does not hesitate.
Mark Liveric, Art Welch, Tony Macken, John Kerr, Alan Spavin, Gary Darrell, Peter Silvester and Roy Willner have all been effective starters this season.
"You can't relax out there because you know there's someone on the bench who can come in and do the job," said Stokes. "We have a team of fine players."
Unlike the superstar-loaded teams in the league, Viollet prefers a well-balanced attack of "no-name" performers. Five players have accounted for the 11 Washington goals with no one having more than three.
"It's not just 11, but a balanced-team effort. Monday (a 1-0 shootout victory over San Jose), everybody played super," added Viollet.
Some of the Dips are aching from the San Jose game. Redfern (strained thigh muscle) and Green (strained knee ligaments) are listed as doubtful for the Rochester game. Darrell (knee ligaments) is still hobbled slightly from an earlier injury.
"I certainly don't envision an easy game," said Viollet. "Rochester will be tough. They have a big field like us but aren't real physical."
Following tonight's game, Washington is idle until Eastern Division rival Fort Lauderdale visits RFK Stadium Saturday night at 8.