After a night of sensational work, Washington Diplomat goalkeeper Bill Irwin was done in by what he called "a lucky toe-poke" - Oscar Fabbiani's goal with 71 seconds left that gave the Tampa Bay Rowdies a 1-0 victory tonight.
Shut out the second straight game on the current three-game road trip, the Diplomats played strong defense and went into soccer's version of a basketball stall in hopes of taking the North American Soccer League match into overtime.
"Then in extra time, anything might happen," said the Diplomat's coach, Gordon Bradley, who conceived the conservative game plan to cover the recent loss by injury of his two top scores, Alan Green and Joe Horvath.
With Irwin and his back-line playmates working well against Tampa Bay's relentless assault, the Rowdies missed on their first 20 shots, bewildered by the sliding tackles of Don Droege and Mike Dillon and baffled by Irwin's sprawling knock-aways, at least two done with his legs or feet.
The end came with a suddenness that move Bradley to call it "a said time".
Tampa Bay midfielder Peter Baralic took a pass 15 years from the Washington goal, to Irwin' left. The assault seemed no one more ominous than 20 others repulsed. But time was flying, and if the Rowdies were to please their 24,046 customers, they had less than 90 seconds to find a way past Irwin.
Baralic moved to the center, past Tommy O'Hara, who missed a sliding tackle. Then Baralic rocketed a left-footed pass to Fabbiani, who reached out with is left foot and deflected the ball, ever so softly, into the net.
"Such a sloppy goal," Bradley called it. "I didn't think it had enough strength to reach the net."
"I suppose 99 times out of 100, I'd have gotten it," Irwin said. "It was a lucky toe-poke, but it wnded up in the back of the net and that was it."
"It looked like we might play all night," Tampa Bay's Steve Wegerie said, cbut then the goalkeeper let one slip through his hands."
Now 9-5 in the Eastern Division of the National Conference, the Diplomats are struggling. They must play one more road game, Wednesday of Detroit, before returning home for a June 17 game with Rochester.
"We have to see if we can put some goals together," Bradley said, a lament hardly predictable two weeks ago when the Diplomats erer the NASL's highest scoring team with 32 goals behind the offensive fireworks of Green and Horvath.
So ineffective was the Diplomat offense tonight that, after 80 scoreless minutes, Bradley ordered his charges to play for the zip-zip tie and hope for a break in the sudden-death period.
While the Rowdies sent a defender upfield to press on offense and consequently fired 13 second-half shots, the Diplomats managed only four shots after halftime.
Only one of those shots seemed capable of going in, that a wicked kick by Paul Cannell from directly in front of the Zeljko Bileck dived to his left and batted it away with six minutes to play.
Bradley said the Rowdies played aggressive offensively in the second half, using that extra man, "because they had 24,000 people here and they had played so terribly in Philadelphia (a 3-0 loss three days ago)."
Although without their leading scorer, Rodney Marsh, who was suspended tonight after being ejected in a game last week, the Rowdies remained undefeated in seven home games this season.
In the doing, the Rowdies gave their coach, Gordon Jago, a chance to bait the local media, which had been giving him a hard time after the Philadelphia debacle.
"It was a very good and very important victory," Jago said. "We are 10-4, on top of the Eastern Division of the American Conference with a few points to spare, our average attendance is up 57 percent, my marriage is deliciously perfect - but, Boy, do I have problems."
Then Jago walked away.