They begin arriving between 9 and 9:30 a.m. Some of the earlybirds are there because they need attention from the trainer. Others prefer to take their time getting changed.
The locker room underneath RFK Stadium is quiet at this hour. Outside, the broad, well-groomed soccer field stands empty. Although it is easily the best soccer field in the Washington area, it is used for practice purposes only once a week because of the Washington Diplomats' contract with the D.C. Armory Board.
Because of this, the Dips have two practice fields. One is at Ft. McNair, about a 15-minute drive from RFK. The other is across the street from the stadium, about a 10-minute walk.
During the season the team rarely works out for much more than an hour. The North American Soccer League schedule is the most rugged in the world, with games scheduled two and three times a week. Overwork in practice can be a problem.
On this morning, heat will be the major problem for the 19 members of the squad. At 9 a.m. the temperature is hovering near 90 and the humidity makes it seem hotter.
The locker room is cool and the noise level increases considerably as it begins to fill up. In one section of the room Mike Lester and Art Welch are involved in a loud game of kick-tennis, a training table functioning as the net, with goalies Eric Martin and Bob Stetler. Almost every point results in an argument.
At 9:40 coach Alan Spavin walks in having already spent the early part of his morning with general manager John Carbray, reviewing personnel. The Dips art not likely to make the playoffs in 1977 and changes are imminent.
Several players parade into Spavin's office as he changes to tell him about aches, pains and problems. Defender Roy Willner, kicked in the ribs the night before, is excused from practice for an X-ray.
Twenty minutes after he arrives, Spanvin walks through the locker room, dragging a net filled with eight soccer balls. That is the signal to exit. The players fall in behind.
Today they will practice at the field across the street because they have another game the following night. On days practice is held at Ft. McNair several vans are used to transport the team.
The field is locked, but Spanvin has the keys. "I don't suppose you forgot those things, Alan?" defender Don McAllister asks hopefully. "I'm very good at remembering things," Spanvin answers.
The field is hardly worth locking Grass grows only in patches and the goals are only frames with no nets. When the team scrimmages the surrounding fences are considered inbounds because the playing area is so narrow.
Spavin takes about 15 minutes to give the players a chance to loosen up.They walk, jog, run around the field -- in pairs -- until he tells them to sit down in one of the goals. Already, most are sweating profusely.
Spavin's major objective on this morning is to try to find ways to score more goals. The Diplomat offense has been anemic. The drills he designs are offensive.
The problem is you can work on shooting for days, and get to the point where you never miss a shot in practice but it might not do you any good in a game," Spavin explained. "Still, you have to try and work on shooting if you're having problems scoring."
Receiving a pass and shooting quickly is the major drill during the workout. The Dips have had trouble retaining control long enough to shoot from in close. Spavin wants them to work on gaining control of the pass and shooting without dribbling. Few players are able to get off hard shots. The drill is a difficult one and after a few minutes frustration begins to take over Shots miss the goal by wider and wider margins.
Seeing this, Spavin halts the drill. "All right, let's try for 10 minutes or so all out," he says. That is the signal for a brief scrimmage.
The players perk up immediately. As any group of athletes, they find playing much more fun than drilling. Spavin referees as they race up and down the field for about 15 minutes.
Confusion seems to be the one constant, with players yelling back and forth unintelligibly at a nonstop rate. They communicate in a language that is clearly theirs.
The workout runs about 75 minutes. Spavin makes a few final announcements, mostly reminders and sends the team to the showers.
"There are so many things you'd like to work on but there isn't time," Spavin says as he gathers up the equipment.
"During preseason about all we work on is conditioning. Now we need to scrimmage more to work better together. And it's hard to ask the lads to go hard for too long on this field."
Returning to the clubhouse, the players make no effort to leave in any hurry. The workout is behind them and now they can relax. The mood is social.
"These are the good times," Martin says as he sips a soft drink. "We're tired but we feel good. After a practice or a match we're able to spend time with each other."
The practice has lasted from 10:10 until 11:25. But many of the players will not leave the stadium until after 1 p.m. Practice is work, but it is also fun but the players would never admit it.
"I'm looking to next week. We're off until Saturday." Spavin is saying as he walks through the locker room. "Then we can get some work done."
Behind him several players moan as if in pain. But they are all smiling. Come next week most of them will arrive early.