From the instant Gary Darrell began kicking a soccer ball during his preteen days in Bermuda, he was a success. He started on the Bermuda's national team for seven seasons and has competed throughout the world in the Olympics and World Cup play.

Now in his fifth season with the Washington Diplomats, the popular 31-year-old Darrell held four of the five individual offensive club records going into this season.

But first-year coach Gordon Bradley restructured the Dips from the ground up and Darrell was demoted to reserve duty.

"It was tough not playing. It was the first time that I can remember I had to prove myself to anyone," said Darrell, the team captain. "Gordon hadn't seen me play more than twice in four years so I had to show him I could still do it."

In the first seven games this year, Darrell didn't get off the bench. Because of a shortage of defenders, Darrell, normally a midfielder, was pressed into duty on the back line.

"I adjusted to the substitute role because the team was playing very well," said Darrell. "But when we didn't play well, I though a change should have been made. I'm not complaining, but I know I can still play."

Darrell probably will be pressed into action again along with Roy Willner, Jim Steele, Tommy O'Hara and goal keeper Bill Irwin in the back tonight when the Dips try to regroup against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at RFK at 8. The game will be broadcast on WTOP - 1500.

Darrell made his season debut against the Tulsa Roughnecks. He played 25 minutes in replacing injured centerback Alex Pringle. Darrell played the full 90 minutes in a 3-2 loss to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday night.

Having a tough time shutting off Dennis Vaninger, who scored twice, Washington's Paul Cannell (two goals) was moving past Darrell as the leading scorer in the club's history. Cannell, with 20 points on the season, has a career total of 48, one more than Darrell.

The Dips with a record of 4-2 and 59 points and tied with the Cosmos (7-1) for the National Conference's Eastern Division lead, are not calling tonight's match a "must win" but a "need-to-win" game.

Following this contest, Washington plays three games in five days on the road against Division contenders Portland, Vancouver and Minnesota.

"This game is certainly important, we don't want to go to Portland with two consecutive losses," said Bradley. "It'll be tough enough playing three games on the road. We have to win home games."

As is Bradley's style, he plans to have his club attack the visiting Rowdies from the beginning. Tampa Bay (5-4) has scored 19 goals, the same number as Washington, but has been a little suspect on defense.

A rebuilt defensive unit including goalie Winston DuBose who has all of two games under his belt, has been generous, allowing 17 goals.

Washington has yielded only seven.

"They aren't particularly strong defensively. I don't think DuBose has been under a lot of pressure since he's been here," said Bradley. "We're going right at them, expecially on the wings with (Ray) Graydon and (Mike) Bakic."

Darrell, who may draw the tough task of stopping Rodney Marsh, says he has not slowed down.

"If anything, I'm a step quicker. I just have to learn to stabilize myself and stay with my man," said Darrell.

Marsh, flamboyant leader of the crowd pleasing Rowdies has back-to-back two-goal games. He leads the team in scoring with 18 points . . . Washington has broken or tied 11 club records . . . in addition to moving past Darrell as the all-time scorer, Cannell is tied for first for most career goals (21) and moved into fifth in assists with six . . . Despite allowing three goals, in his last game, Irwin remained the NASL's second-leading goal keeper with a goals-allowed average of 0.76 . . . Washington holds a 4-3 lifetime edge over Tampo Bay, theteam split two games in '77.