"It really doesn't make difference who you play on the first round," said Washington sweeperback Jim Steele, following the Diplomats' 2-to-1 loss to visiting New England Wednesday night. "You have to win the game or it doesn't matter anyway."

Although the Dips (16-11 and 144 points have clinched at least a wild card berth their second North American Soccer League playoff appearance in the five years of the club, they desperately wanted to win Wednesday night's game to stay within striking distance of Western Division teams Vancouver and Portland in the battle for home-field advantage in the first round.

The Dips who have nearly clinched second place in the Eastern Division, likely will play the second-place team in the Western Division in the first round of the playoffs.

Vancouber (20-6 with 164 points) has four games remaining, two against teams already eliminated from the playoff. Portland (19-9 and 156 points) will play its final two games against weak teams.

Tulsa (130 points), Minnesota (129) and Toronto (126) also are involved in the race for the best record among second-place teams but seem to be too far behind to overtake either Portland, Vancouver or Washington.

The three division-winners automatically gain the home-field advantage in the first round, with a fourth spot going to the second-place team with the most points.

Washington will play its remaining three games against Rochester, the Cosmos and Toronto. The Cosmos have clinched the Eastern Division title of the National Conference while Rochester and Toronto are struggling to beat Washington for the second-place playoff spot.

"The New England game was a game we wanted to win," said Washington Coach Gordon Bradley. "It was a shattering defeat, especially since we played well enough to win. We had our chances throughout the game."

The Dips, who had won four straight and seven of their last eight before the New England contest, botched many scoring chances. They missed several close-in attempts and one shot caromed off the goalpost.

Ray Graydon's penalty kick accounted for the Dip's only goal.

But Bradley is pleased that his club appears to be peaking again. Both the offensive and the defensive units have shown the cohesion, poise and determination that got the club off to a flying start this year.

Bradley's main worries are several injuries and the penalty points several players have accumulated.

Ken Mokgojoa, a one-man terror during the Dip's late-season surge, was kicked on the ankle in the Rochester game last week and is hobbling. Starters Sakib Viteskic and Ann Mihailovic are playing with keg injuries.

Centerback Mike Dillon was ejected from the Rochester game and must out the Wednesday night game against Cosmos. Striker Paul Cannel, the team leading scorers with 33 points, is one yellow card away from a two-game suspension. Should Cannell receive a yellow card in the final games, the suspension could carry into the playoffs.

"The Cannell thing is bothering me right now. We can't afford to lose him now," said Bradley. "I still think we have a good chance to get the second place spot and we plan to go after victories in the next three games.

"But if we have to go Portland (rather than Portland playing here), we'll go and play attacking soccer.This is a one-shot deal and anything can happen. I think we can beat them here or there. One thing, the players don't care where they play."