Asked who is the best goalkeeper in the North American Soccer League, the Washington Diplomats' Bill Irwin pauses ever so slightly, then shyly answers, "Probably me."

"If you don't think you're the best, who will? There are several good goalies in the league and I think I'm as good as they are," Irwin said yesterday.

If teammates and Washington fans voted today, Irwin easily would win the nod as the league's No. 1 goalie. The 6-foot-2, 192-pound Irwin won the respect of even nonsoccer fans Sunday when he played the final 24 minutes with a torn hamstring in his right leg.

Irwin has been ruled out of action for at least a week with Bob Stetler starting in goal for the Diplomats Saturday in Philadelphia.

The Dips' assistant coach, Joe Mallett, handling the team in Gordon Bradley's absence, had made all three substitutions allowed when Irwin was injured as he collided with teammate Tommy O'Hara and Jimmy Ryan of Dallas while attempting to intercept a crossing pass.

"I pass Bill hobbling around after he fell and my first thought was of the shootout," said Washington defender Robert Iarusci. "It would have been tough. I'm just glad we scored."

Ken Mokgojoa's goal with 3:11 to play gave the Dips a 2-1 win and staved off what probably would have been a loss had the game gone into the tie-breaking shootout.

Irwin, a diving, gambling goalie, was virtually helpless on one leg. Even he had to admit he might have had trouble with a shootout.

"The lads did a good job stopping the play out front," Irwin said. "Dallas couldn't get any shots to test me."

Perhaps Irwin's reputation has something to do with that. The Tornado applied little pressure against the gutty Irishman and managed only one shot the last 24 minutes. Irwin, despite his handicap, leaped high to snag two Tornado crosses before sliding out of ounds.

"Irwin is undoubtedly one of the best in the league," said Mallett. "He has that good height, he's brave and, most importantly, has that experience."

Washington (5-2) may have its best back five in its six years in the NASL. The Dips have allowed only six goals in seven games, and two of them were deflections on which Irwin had no chance.

Irwin is ranked second in the league and first in the National Conference, with 22 saves, two shutouts and an 0.83 goals-against average.

"I just haven't had a lot to do," said Irwin. "We talk to each other a lot back there. I shout because sometimes people don't understand (his Irish accent)."

Irwin does most of his talking in the box. Hardly timid, he does not hesitate to slide under an opponent's foot, leap into a crowd or leave the goal area to chase down a ball.

In the recent Washington-Cosmos game, Seninho had controlled a long pass and had begun to make a move toward the Washington net. Suddenly, the Cosmo forward looked up and saw a muscular, Bushy-faced man streaking toward him some 30 yards from the goal. The sight was enough to greeze Seninho in his tracks. Irwin booted the ball out of bounds. End of threat."

"I don't gamble unless I can get the ball," said Irwin. "When I make up my mind to come, I'm coming."

Irwin was an instant success when he arrived from Cardiff City, Wales, two years ago.

In his first eight games, Irwin had five shutouts. He recorded 178 saves in 2,361 minutes last year.

"Good keepers have to kick and hammer the ball well, cut off the crosses and above all be brave," said Irwin. "You can't be afraid of getting injured. I've never been seriously hurt before this."

Sunday, Irwin said to a reporter, "It's your fault. We talked about no injuries and look what happened."

Irvin, a hard worker in practice, would play if the doctor allowed it.

"I have to stay sharp because I know Bobby is there. If I don't play well . . . " said Irwin, "Bobby's good. Now he'll probably have to play. I'll be back."

Bradley, whose hand was badly cut in a lawn mower accident last week, is expected to be released from George Washington University Hospital within the next two days. Doctors said Bradley will not lose the use of his fingers or thumb, as had been feared earlier . . . Midfielder Jim Steele, whose jaw was broken in the Dallas game, will miss six to eight weeks. CAPTION:

Picture, Diplomat Bill Irwin, whose torn hamstring will keep him our of Saturday's game in Philadelphia, says goalies must "above all be brave. You can't be afraid of getting injured." By John McDonnell-The Washington Post