This is the time of the soccer season "where your character comes in," said Washington Diplomat sweeper Jim Steel. "A lot of our people are hurting, but we have to find a way to pull together and try to salvage something from this trip."

Washington Coach Gordon Bradley will have more wounded players than healthy ones tonight when the Dips play the Vancouver Whitecaps at 11 o'clock (EDT) in the second game of their current three-game road trip.

The Dips' leading scorer, Paul Connell, and winger Mike Bakic were sent home with injuries. Neither will be available for the rest of the trip. Cannell, who has eight goals, has calcium on his shin. Team officials say the only way it will heal is if he stays off it for at least a week. Bakic has a painful thigh strain.

Normally Ken Mokgojoa would move to Cannell's spot, but Mokgojoa sprained his ankle against Portland Wednesday and will not play tonight.

Bradley was uncertain about lineup changes. One possible replacement is Dave Proctor, formerly with Fort Lauderdale. Proctor was en route to Vancouver yesterday and Bradley said that if Proctor signs a Washington contract, he wll start tonight. Andries Maseko will start for Bakic.

Four normal starters, Cannell, Bakic, Mike Dillon and Roy Willner, will not be in the Dips's lineup.

Vancouver, which is battling Portland for its division lead, will be without goalie Phil Parks. He got a red card in a game last week and has been suspended for tonight's game.

Despite the injuries, the Dips have fared better than most followers felt they would. They won only 10 games last season but have won eight of 11 this year. They are tied with the Cosmos for first place in their divisions of the North American Soccer League.

"We've been lucky. We've been getting the breaks," said Steele. "That and teamwork have done it for us."

With the injuries, however, which have also striken Steele and Alex Pringle, the Dips' luck appears to be running thin.

"Realistically we had hoped to win at least one of the three games on this trip," Steele said. "We wanted to get nine or 10 points out of it, but it's going to be tough to do that now."

"We've built up the reputation of being a rough team, but that's wrong," said Steele, the roughest of the Dips. "Only (goalkeeper) Bill Irwin and I are over 6 feet tall. We just don't back down."

Portland's leading scorere, Clyde Best, agreed. After Portland's victory Wednesday night, he said, "That was the most physical game I have ever played. I wasn't sharp in the box because the ref wasn't calling anything. You can't blame the players; they take what they can get and do what they can to win. Washington is very good at that."

Steele, a second-year Dip from Southampton, England, is the Dips' enforcer and their leader.

"He has taken a vital leadership role on this club," Bradley said. He is unquestionably one of the top defenders in the league."

From his position as sweeper Steele controls and sets the Dips' defense. He has the freedom to roam practically wherever he pleases. He even ventures deep into the Dips' offensive end of the field.

"The biggest difference between this team and last year's team is that we all get along so well," he said. "Everyone listens to everyone else and wants to do better as a team. Everyone is close and we do a lot of things together once the game is over. When you do things that way it makes playing the game a lot easier. This is the most fun I've had playing soccer in the last five or six years.

"It's unusual to get guys from all over the world and they play so well together," Steele said. "We have so many nationalities, on this team that sometimes I don't know if I'm saying yes or no."