For Washington Diplomat center back Mike Dillon, there never has been any other sport.

"Soccer is all I know. I've never wanted to be anything but a professional soccer player," said the 26-year-old Briton. "In London, everyone played the game. You start at an early age and keep playing until one day you realize you might have a chance to play pro."

Dillon's opportunity came early. He quit school at 15 to enroll in what he called the "professional soccer school" as a teen-age member of the Tottenham Hotspurs, a First Division team.

"Instead of studying or doing what I should have been doing, I was out in the yards (playgrounds) playing soccer," Dillon said. "You know about 75-80 percent of the lads fail, but I had come along pretty quick so I signed with the Hotspurs.

"Then, I wasn't too concerned about education. I gambled that I would be good enough to make it," he said. "Right now, I don't regret leaving school."

Dillon and hundreds of other young English players work on fundamentals with their pro teams six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day.They receive excellent technical training and practice against the top players in their country, but do not play in regular league games.

Usually, a teen-ager remains an apprentice for several years before moving up to the varsity. During his apprenticeship, Dillon played on all the national youth teams.

"You get paid but you aren't concerned about that," he said. "You just want to learn everything about soccer. I made$16 a week for my first year. You played 46 weeks a year in addition to handling little chores for the club, like shining the veterans' shoes, cleaning up the locker room.

"Most of us lived at home so the money wasn't that important. There was so much competition in England, you couldn't afford not to work hard. My parents were behind me so I took the chance.

"My brother Tommy quit school when I did. But he didn't make it."

"For American kids, it's all about money. Larry Bird Just signed a multimillion contract to play basketball and he's just out of college, 21 years old. He could retire now. Maybe that's the right way. In England, you take the chance early and hopefully rise to the top pro level."

Dillon played six seasons for the Hotspurs. In 1972, he came to America for a vacation and ended up playing for the now-defunct Montreal Olympiques of the NASL.

"I played forward, scored eight goals. I could never play that position in England," Dillon said. "That's when I met Gordon Bradley (Washington coach). He marked (guarded) me in a game."

Dillon returned home the following year but a knee injury forced him out of the game he loved for two years. Before his injury, Dillon had earned the reputation of being the iron man.

"I had never missed a game," said Dillon, who had played every minute of every game for the Dips this year until a bruised knee sidelined him last week. "I was frustrated I couldn't play. When my knee mended, I was having trouble getting on the team (First Division) and Gordon remembered me and called me. He asked me about coming to America to play for him in New York.

"I didn't want to finish my career playing Third or Fourth Division soccer so I signed with the Cosmos. Pele signed three weeks later but not because I'd signed though.

"The league was still very young and most of the players, except the aged veterans like Pete, were not making much money. I didn't get much, but it was more than I would have made playing in England."

Dillon toiled in New York three seasons, starting for two of those years under Bradley. But the Cosmos, who were intent on being the most famous team in the world, had begun their "sign-a-superstar" policy and Dillon saw the handwriting on the wall. When his three-year contract expired, he came along with Bradley to Washington.

"I knew I wouldn't be playing much any more so I was very pleased when Gordon signed me again," Dillon said. "It was a big lift for me. I had begun to like America and didn't want to return to England."

One of the mainstays of the defense, Dillon played in 23 games last year. He was forced to sit out six games because of a 30-day suspension for brushing a referee following a game.

"That was another low point in my career. To get suspended like that hurt me," said Dullon. "It'll never happen again."

Dillon, who lives in Springfield with his wife Deborah and four-year-old daughter Natalie, said he has applied for a green card (permanent residency) but will retain his British citizenship. Eventually, Dillon would like to coach, preferably in college.

"The game needs experienced coaches to succeed in this country," Dillon said. "Soccer still is behind here. American kids have so many other things to do. I'd love to see America in the World Cup. That would be a true world title.

"It bothers me that America calls the Bullets the world champions and the Yankees the world Champions when they only play here. They are the American champions."

Dillon, who rarely complains, also said he plans to ask for a raise next season.

"I'm in the second year of a three-year contract. I think I've played well enough to ask for more money," Dillon said. "I've earned it. I've worked at this game a long time. CAPTION: Picture 1, Mike Dillon entered the soccer wars as a teen-ager. By John W. Albino for the Washington Post; Picture 2, Mike Dillon