It is no accident the Washington Diplomats have the second best won-lost record in the NASL. It is no accident the Dips (6-1) are battling the New York Cosmos (6-0) for the National Conference's Eastern Division lead. It is also no accident Washington is third in the league in goals scored (13) and second in goals allowed (4).
"I wanted to improve the offense first. That was a priority," said Washington first-year Coach Gordon Bradley, who came here after building the Cosmos into a league power. "But you need a good defense, too. You have to have both if you expect any success."
From the day Bradley arrived, he began rebuilding Washington, a disorganized erratic team for much of 1977. He scouted players in England, Scotland and South Africa as well as in the NASL to find the players to turn Washington into a respectable club.
Looking for much-needed scoring from the front line (Washington scored only 30 goals in 26 games last year), Bradley immediately purchased the contract of striker Paul Cannell from Newcastle United in England.
A feisty sort who is as sharp with his elbows as his is with his tongue, the 5-foot-11, 160-pound Cannell has scored five goals and earned an assist for his team-high 11 points. He led Washington in scoring with 28 points in 1976. An excellent leaper and aggressive player, Cannell is especially dangerous on corner kicks and high balls. The English native totaled 66 fouls here two years ago, when he led the team with 28 points. He had been called for 34 in seven games this season.
"They're picking on me," said Cannell, following a game in which he picked up two yellow cards. "I don't do anything except try to score goals."
Assisting Cannell on the front line are Mike Bakic, who scored 10 points while starting in the midfield for the Rochester Lancers, Ray Graydon and Bobby Stokes.
Bakic, a Yugoslavia native, gives the Dips speed at the left wing while Graydon lends finessee, speed and experience to the right wing.
Purchased from Coventry City in England, Graydon has scored 126 goals in 378 pro games in his 11-year pro career. He has been slowed by injuries but showed glimpses of brilliance with his only goal and two assists in Washington's 3-0 season-opening win over Philadelphia.
The surprise to the Dip's offense has been the play of Bobby Stokes.A winger for Washington last year (six goals, four assists), the quick 5-9, 160-pound Stokes was moved into the middle next ot Cannell in Bradley's 4-2-4 alignment.
"He (Stoken) is sort of a second striker. He sort of runs behind Paul looking for shots," said Bradley. "And he can move back into the midfield if needed."
Front-line substitutes: Ken Mosgojoa and Andrier Maseko, who scored 88 and 95 goals respectively in the South African League last year, have provided the lightning speed and showmanship Washington had never known.
The midfielders have to provide leadership, set up the offense with good, sharp passes, score an occasional goal and drop back and help out on defense.
Carmine Marcontonio, a standout performer for the 76 Championship Toronto Metros, and Sakib Viteski have filled the bill thus far.
"They have played very well. But if one of them got injured, we'd have a problem," said Bradley. "That's why I'm still looking for more depth at that position."
Viteskic has chipped in with a goal and two assists. Marcantonio, leads the team in, steals skinned knees, and languages mastered (four). "It would be nice if he could score too," said Marcantonio. "But we're doing okay."
The defensive unit, which has posted four shutouts, has been the heart of the Dips. Sweeperback Jim Steele and right back Roy Willner, starters on Washington's 10-16 club last year have been joined by Mike Dillon, traded from The Cosmos, Tommy O'Hara, who has not missed a game in three years with Queen of the South in Scotland and "Irish Magician" Bill Irwin in the goal.
Irwin was a late-season acquisition, made only when stalwart Eric Martin broke a leg during the indoor season. Martin may have a time earning his job back because Irwin, who had played 190 straight games for Cardiff City in England for the past six seasons, has been outstanding. In seven games, Irwin has racked up 42 saves and allowed but four goals. His 6.57 per game average is second best in the NASL.
Willner and O'Hara, the outside defenders have kept opponents' from making long runs and pressing on Irwin.
Dillon, a starter with the Cosmos in 1975-76, but relegated to reserve duty last year, has teamed with Steele to shut down the middle. Both Dillon and Steele are durable and often become offensive minded, as evidenced by their total of 13 shots thus far. Each has one assist.
"The players make the coach, the coach doesn't make the players. We have players with character and it shows on the team," said Bradley.
Washington has had its share of injuries but the reserves, particularly the South African forwards and defender Alex Pringle, who also played from the Dips last year, have filled in admirably.
"Everybody has worked hard getting to know each other," said Willner. "We've got players from all over but the communication is coming. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] working at it."