The last train to the North American Soccer League playoff has pulled away, and the Washington Diplomats are stranded at the station.
It's really too bad, because the locals have played some of their best ever soccer during the lastest skid. But for their nagging disability in front of the net, the Dips probably deserved to win at least two of their last four games.
Alan Spavin, midfielder and since named head coach, chomped on a postgame cigar as he ambled down one of those subterranean gangways beneath RFK Stadium after Monday's 2-0 loss to Las Vegas.
"You know, that's one of the things that makes this game so great," Spavin said philosophically. "It's so bloodly unpredictable."
The Dips had just managed to out shoot their adversary 30-15, with nine shots on target and at least two others coming quite close.
Although coach Dennis Violet resigned under pressure, no quick solution is in sight for the snake-bitten team. The Dips are pressing, perhaps even trying too hard, and nothing has worked yet to shake the slump.
A consistent goal scorer - a Gerd Mueller tupe who can score from all angles with little operating space - would surely make a contender of Washington. Several critics have already noted that the speedy Trinidadian Steve David, now leading the league in scoring for Los Angeles, was available early this season.
But David is gone, and it's not certain he could have ended the Dips' miseries anyhow.
Washington also lacks the type of player nearly every championship soccer team has whether there is a consistent scoring threat or not. This type of player makes things happen, puts his stamp on a match. Soccer writers in Europe and Latin America would call him a "personality."
Most great teams have one such personality, some have two. The top three teams from the 1974 World Cup - West Germany, the Netherlands and Poland - had one each in Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Kazimierz Deyna, respectively.
The most successful club teams have been the same way. Real Madrid of the late '50s with Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo diStefano; Benfica with Eusebio: Santos with Pele; Ajax and Barcelona with Cruyff; Bayern Munich with Beckenbauer; Liverpool with Kevin Keegan: Huracan (Argentina) with Rene Houstman.
There have been strong teams without such names, but they are seldom great teams. The principle generally applies to a lesser degree within a given league, and the NASL (with serveral of the above names the better examplers) is no exception.
If a magnetic personality is to rescue the Dips, he should come from the ranks of the current team. Tony Macken showed brief flashes of being that type of player during the last home match. But it is too late in the season to try out new personnel.
Actually, one of the biggest problems Washington has had this year is that usually for reasons beyond his control. Viollet was able to start the same lineup twice on but one occasion.
Like contrast. The Cosmos won six of eight with virtually the same lineup.
Like many NASL teams, the Diplomats must do something to stabilize the roster and give the lineup continuity. Washington may take a cue from The Cosmos, who have a strict policy against getting players on loan from overseas clubs.
The quality of player available to a team with a budget like the Dips have may go down slightly, but it would make it easier to establish a unit that will harmonize as a team.
All questions of the tactics aside - the Dips are not playing as badly as their record shows. Washington will continue to lose and draw minor league crowds in the process until it can consistently put 11 of its own players on the field.