The Washington Diplomats, mired in a four-game losing streak, are hopeful that the return of flamboyant striker Paul Carnell for tonight's 9 p.m. game in Houston will rekindle the spirit that has been missing the last two weeks.

"I'm one of the two instigators (Jim Steele is the other) on the team. At least one of us is back," said Cannell, who has missed the last four games because of an injured shin. He was suspended for the Toronto game because of points accumulated by yellow cards.

The Dips welcome Cannell's return. The offense, once one of the most potent in the NASL, has produced only three goals in the last four games and was woeful in Washington's 3-0 loss to Toronto Saturday at RFK.

"We haven't played that badly. We just haven't scored," said Washington Coach Gordon Bradley. 'But Paul is back now and that gives us our strength back in the middle."

The Dips, with 71 points, have fallen behind the (New York-New Jersey) Cosmos 10-2, by 24 points. Rochester, with 56 points, and Toronto, 47, have closed in on Washington in the Eastern Division race. The top two teams in each division along with two wild cards from each of the 12-team conferences advance to the playoffs.

Despite missing four games, Cannell is still the team's leading scorer with 20 points. The aggressive native of England also leads the team in fouls with 44.

We have been conceding something in the back (defense), also. The Toronto game was the first time we allowed another team to outfoul us (14-13)," said Cannell. "We have to be more aggressive. My leg is still a bit tender but if they get the ball up front to me, I'll score."

The Hurricane is still smarting from a 1-0 loss to visiting Oakland Sunday and on synthetic turf is expected to give Washington trouble.

"Right now, it makes no difference what kind of surface we play on. We need a win," said Bradley. "We can't lay back anymore on either offense or defense. We have to regain some momentum."

Cannell will be joined up front by Ray Graydon, Bobby Stokes and Mike Bakic, the latter still bothered by a thigh strain.

Gary Darrell may replace Carmen Marcantonio in the midfield. Alex Pringle will again start at sweeper-back in place of Steele.

Forward Mark Lindsay is the leading Houston scorer with 12 points. Hurricane goalier Keith Von Eron is fifth in the American Conference with a 1.26 goals-against average.