In the end, most of the fans in RFK Stadium were not quite sure what they were watching. Or what to call it. Sudden death of sudden death of sudden death seems the best description, after calling it the best sporting event Washington will see in some time.

The sport was soccer-and the fact that a pigeon kept returning to the field every time the players left his favorite spots shows how deserted RFK usually is, even during Diplomat games. Yesterday may have altered the bird's life style some. Washington may yet give its heart to the Dips.

"The fans came out and enjoyed," said Coach Gordon Bradley, keenly aware that there always is something more important than victory for the Dips. "It was something for the fans to see, another dimension.

"When the shootout came in, I was against it (because no other country in the world allows such a thing). But I've been here (in the States) since day one (of pro soccer) and at this stage we've got to offer entertainment.

"If you can get them on their feet-and they were on their feet out there today-I've no objection. In the shootout today, they were on their feet. Need I say more?"

In truth, what the 24,862 fans were agog over was a sudden-death shootout, the first team to gain an advantage during five-second, one-on-one forays from 35 yards between one player and the goalkeeper. All this after the Dips had kept The Best Soccer Team Money Can Buy deadlocked through 90 minutes of regulation play, 15 minutes of overtime and the prescribed firve-shooters-apiece shootout.

So many Dips and so many Cosmos had gone at each other that one expected to see 68-year-old Sonny Werblin trot down from the owner's box and take a whack for the home side. Time after dramatic time. Washington's Bill Irwin kept an international collection of all-stars at bay.

"I thought we were going to run out of players," Irwin said.

"It's not the right way to decide a game, but I enjoy it. I enjoy it because it's your skill against the other guy's. What I try each time (as the opponent begins dribbling from the 35-yard line) is to get to the penalty spot as quickly as possible (to cut down the angle to the goal).

"There's always the chance of being chipped (some fiend gently dropping the ball over Irwin's outstretched arms and watching it skip unmolested into the net). Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."

The ninth Cosmo, the Portuguese winger Seninho, the very fellow Irwin had intimidated an outrageous distance from the net to foil a certain goal in the overtime, finally scored the winner. Atonement was sweet.

To keep the contest alive for shootout stage, Irwin had left the safety of the goal area and dashed toward the 35-yard line as Seninho and another Cosmo suddenly seemed about to pounce on a loose ball.

No other Dip was close-and two Cosmos bearing down on Irwin would have been a certain goal. Irwin's only hope was to beat the invaders to the ball-and his was not the timid, let-me-avoid-contact charge one would expect from so pampered a player.

Rusty Tillman never charged downfield with a meaner look than Irwin's. It was enough for Seninho to stop and consider this madman suddenly near his path.

"I had a 50-50 chance," Irwin said, "and if I hadn't gotten the ball I'd have gotten him. He'd have been carried off. If I'd missed the ball, I would have taken him out of the game. He definitely was coming out of the game."

Irwin got the ball; Seninho won the battle.

Ah, but the rematch:

As nearly everyone but the pigeon was wondering the Supreme Court might be petitioned to decide the matter, Seninho slipped to his right after his initial shootout move. Much of the time such a maneuver can be wonderful for the goalkeeper, because it wastes time.

This time Seninho was able to jockey past the diving Irwin and smack the ball into the open net. Later, Irwin was to mumble, "If I'd forced him a bit wider, it would have been all right."

It would have been all right, not a second of overtime would have been necessary if Alan Green had not failed during another one-on-one challenge against the Cosmos' goalkeeper Erol Yasin.

Green is slightly larger than a blade of grass, possibly from too many headers over the years, but he peppered two shots past Yasin and tied the game at 2-2 early in the second half. Then what seemed a cosmic Cosmo error put him 10 yards in front of Yasin from the left side of the goal.

There was one problem in addition to Yasin-Green had time to think.

"I'm not good when I have a lot of time, like I had then and also in the shootout," he said. "I like it when my mind's made up in a hurry."

Instead of trying to blast the ball by Yasin, as the fans wanted, Green tried to dribble past him. Yasin stayed with him-and stopped him. Green anticipated the obvious postgame question.

"They all say 'shoot', he said. "But what if I'd shot-and he stopped that? Everyone would have been asking me why I didn't try and get around him. You can't win'em all, I suppose." CAPTION: Picture, Alan Green, who had both goals for Diplomats, dribbles around newest Cosmos player, Wim Rijsbergen of Holland. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post