With spirits buoyed by that special optimism only financial security can bring, the Washington Diplomats next Sunday embark on their sixth season, hoping to put five years of dissension, disorganization, so-so soccer and local anonymity behind them.
In its first five years, the franchise has struggled to establish itself on the field, in its own front office and in the hearts and minds of Washington sports fans.
Last season, the Dips suffered through another year of financial losses and were sold in October to Madison Square Garden Corp., a subsidiary of Gulf and Western Industries, Inc.
To the surprise of many, Sonny Werblin, MSG president and chief executive officer, elected to maintain Diplomatic relations with Washington and kept the team in D.C.
"We want to be part of the Washington athletic community," said Werblin. "We believe we know how to make soccer successful here."
Steve Danzansky, the club president who maintains a minority interest in the club with his father, Joe, reflects the dips' optimism. "This is absolutely a solid foundation now," he said. "I'm very happy with the stability MSG has brought. They have provided excellent front-office direction and made a huge commitment to advertising and marketing.I can't say how much money has been invested but it is significantly much more than in the past."
Stability would be something new for the Dips. The club has been run by three general managers in its five years, changed office locations three times and stadiums twice, fired two coaches and brought in a seemingly endless string of nonpremier players in a vain effort to sell the sport.
This year, the Dips have emissaries in the inner city of Washington, operating clinics and trying to sell the sport to a potential, as-yet-untapped, audience.
The club also sent representatives all over the soccer-playing world looking for talented players. Two outstanding players, English winger Kevin Keegan and Argentinian Daniel Passarella, got away, but other acquisitions were made.
The club, which in past years has been unable at times to give away tickets, now has more than 100 ticket outlets in the D.C. area, according to Danzansky, compared with a previous handful.
And the team is crashing the media, with colorful, dynamic commercials popping up on the tube like premature spring flowers, promoting the season opener Sunday with Fort Lauderdale at RFK Stadium.
"As far as Sonny and MSG are concerned," said Danzansky, "they are convinced soccer will be a majorleague sport in this country by 1985, and they want to be part of that.
"This is a long-term investment to them. They have confidence in the coach (Gordon Bradley) and are allowing him to get the best players available. They want him to build a good, solid team."
"It's a nice change not to be limited financially," said John Carbray, in his third year as beneral manager. "We still run the club but we've been given leeway to operate. MSG has made available expertise in very department for use.
"We did a survey last year to find out just what kind of an audience we have. We found out we mainly attract kids who play soccer, their parents and other young adults. I guess I'm talking about the age group of 12-35. We even have new music for out ads. It didn't grab me, but if that's what our audience wants, that's what we'll give them."
Carbray and the Dips' front office also realize the best way to fill up RFK's 50,000-plus-seat stadium is to put a winning product on the field.
"Washington relates to that (winning) better than anything," said Carbray. "And, our club will be much better this year. What we draw will depend on how we do on the field, it's that simple."
Carbray, who came here from San Jose with a reputation for bringing people to the park in droves with all kinds of lucrative giveaways and entertainment for the fans, tried that at RFK with little-to-moderate success for the first two years.
"The first year, we gave away a lot of free stuff. The second year, we cut back on giveaways and moved to two-for-one ticket sales," said Carbray. "This year we have the added-value program. You pay the regular price for a ticket and you get something when you get to the game (T-hirt, balls, hats, etc.). The people will advertise for us.
"We have a deal with Metro for the Wednesday night games (there will be four) where you get a free $1 fare card. We have 10 televised games locally plus one nationally televised game against Los Angeles," added Carbray.
"The one thing people don't know is that although out attendance dropped from an average of 13,058 (the best in Dips' history) to 10,783 last year, we took in more dollars. The first year we sold sizzle and got some people. Now we have to sell our product."
Washington finished 7-12 in '74, 14-10 in '75 and 12-10 in '76. The Dips made the playoffs in '76 but were eliminated in the first round by the Cosmos, 2-0. In 77, the Dips finished 10-16 and last year, Bradley's first season, they compiled a 16-15 record, including a 2-1 overtime loss to Portland in the first round of the league playoffs.
The team was in desperate need of depth, as evidenced by the club's demise after a sizzling 7-1 start. Injuries crippled the club and it finished the season with five straight defeats.
Bradley feels he has strengthened the club with offseason trades and acquisitions.
"We'll have better production this year because now I do have depth," said Bradley. "The players know someone who can play is behind them and wants his chance. We went out to get some good players and we got them.
"The Keegan deal fell through because of technicalities and we just couldn't come to terms with Passarella. But I know we can compete with any team financially now if the right player comes along."
The Dips' defense, one of the best in the NASL before the injuries mounted up, is anchored by Mike Dillon, Tom O'Hara, Jim Steele and Gary Darrell. It should be even better this time around with the addition of Don Droege and Robert Iarusci. Both are experienced, solid players. Iarusci, acquired from the Cosmos, has played for the last three NASL title clubs, the only man in the legaue to do so.
Bradley also beefed up another sore spot -- the midfield. Former Rochester star Joe Horvath and recently purchased Dutch player Rene Breevoort should add stability and leadership.
"The midfield is much stronger, as is the back line," said Bradley. "But my main concern right now is the front. I don't like starting the season without my striker. Without (Paul) Cannell in there, I can't say just how much we've improved."
Cannell, the team's clown prince and the leading scorer in the club's history, underwent surgery for the removal of calcium deposits in his left shin this month and will be lost for at least a month. Until Cannell returns, the front line probably will be composed of Bobby Stokes at the striker with either Ken Mokgojoa, Mike Bakic, Sonny Askew, David Proctor or newly acquired Dutch winger Denny Molendyk at the forwards.
Washington appears solid in goal with Bill Irwin, Bobby Stetler and Eric Martin.
The Dips also have several outstanding American players acquired via the draft. Midfielder Aleks Mihailovic of Jacksonville, defender Kip Germain, formerly of Stuart High School and William and Mary, and goalie Gragan Radovich out of St. Francis, N.Y., were several of the players selected in what Bradley refers to as the "best draft we've ever had."