The Washington Diplomats, coming off their best overall performance of the season, face the beginning of what Coach Gordon Bradley calls the "first pivotal points of the season." Bradley said both keeper Bill Irwin, who missed two games with a pulled hamstring, and striker Paul Cannell, whose cheekbone was fractured eight days ago, will start tonight when the Dips (7-2) face the New England Tea Men (3-7) at Boston University's Nickerson Field at 8 p.m.

Washington plays in Dallas Saturday night.

"We were 7-2 at this time last year then lost six straight," Bradley said. "I'm not a firm believer in statistics, but right now we're the leading goal-scoring team in the league (25) and fifth best in defense. So we've got something going at the moment.

"Although I feel inclined to go withe the same team as last week (the Diplomats beat Memphis, 4-1), I really haven't gotte the good effort, I expected from Bobby Stetler. It was a tough assignment for him to take the place of Irwin without much playing time.

Without Cannell, the Washington offense is reduced to a wing attack. Although both Alan Green tied for second in NASL scoring with eight goals and two assists, and Bobby Stokes, three goals and four assists, have done well from the outside, Bradley and the players feel much more confident with Cannell in the center.

Cannell's skills on balls in the air will be especially necessary tonight. New England, which couldn't work out an agreement to use Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro this season, has been using narrow Nickerson Field.

Washington, riding a four-game winning streak, is going into the game with confidence. Bradley put it, "Let them worry about us."

The Tea Men, the American Conference Eastern Division chamption last year, have had problems.

The Tea Men scored no goals, allowed 12 and were winless after five games-mainly because of the absense of the league's No. 2 scorer in 1978, Mike Flanagan.