As the Washington Diplomats begin the final week of the North American Soccer League's regular season with a 2:30 p.m. game today in RFK Stadium against the Toronto Blizzard, many eyes will be forcusing on one man.
Not Gordon Bradley, the Diplomat coach. Not Jim Steele, the team captain, or the team's all-time leading scorer Paul Cannell or this year's leading scorer, Alan Green.
No, many people will be watching Bobby Stokes.
As so often happens in sports when controversy engulfs one player, another finds himself unwillingly caught in the middle. That is the case with Stokes, who has replaced Cannell on the front line. Cannell easily has been the Dips' most colorful player, and for two seasons their top scorer.
Bradley benched Cannell Wednesday because the coach felt that he was not playing well. What's more, Bradley believed that Green, mired in a nine-game scoreless slump, had been more effective earlier in the season with Stokes playing up front with him.
Wednesday night, against Tampa Bay, Bradley looked like a genius. Stokes, who had gone 16 games at midfield without a goal, turned in his first professional three-goal game while leading the Dips to a 5-1 win.
But that was only the beginning of the story. Angered over being benched, Cannell has demanded to be traded. His best friend, Steele, has joined him in wanting out. Publicly, club officials say the furor will pass. Privately, they say Cannell and Steele are finished in Washington.
"They are gone," one front office member said yesterday.
Which means that Green and Stokes probably are going to be Washington's front line the rest of the season. That also means that if the club falters, some people will say it would have not have happened had Cannell and Steele (now serving a three game league suspension been in the lineup.
"I'm just worried about going out and doing my job on the field," Stokes said. "I can't worry about who gets selected (to play) and who doesn't. That isn't my job. That's Gordon's job. I'm just happy to be selected."
But Stokes readily admits he was delighted when Bradley informed him Tuesday that he would be moving up front, which is his natural position.
"Sometimes when you're having a bad time a change can be welcome," Stokes said. "I was quite pleased when Gordon told me I'd be switching up front. It certainly worked out against Tampa. I felt relaxed up there with Greenie."
Stokes, 28, is a slightly built Englishman with sharp features that have earned him the nickname of "The Rat."
A rapid-fire talker, he and Andries Maseko are known as the cut-ups in the Washington locker room. During practice, Stokes runs all over the field, his mouth keeping pace, either lending encouragement or applying a needle to teammates.
In his three seasons in Washington, Stokes has earned Bradley's respect with his versatility and his willingness to play any position without complaint.
"Bobby's an extremely hard-working player," said Bradley. "He loves the game and he wants to play. He doesn't care where as long as he can help the team."
General Manager John Carbray is more succinct.
"I think Stokes is the most underrated player on his team," he said, before Stokes scored his hat trick.
Stokes is tied with Sonny Askew for fourth on the Dips' scoring list with seven goals, six assists and 20 points. Although Wednesday's hat trick was his first as a professional it still ranks second on Stokes' list of thrills to scoring the only goal of the game for Southhamton in the ultra-prestigious F. A. Cup final in April, 1977.
Stokes has no qualms about playing his new position. Nor does he underestimate the pressure the switch will put on him.
"I think we've got the team to really go all the way in the playoffs, he said. "Except for (the game with) Los Angeles, we've played very well lately.
"I think in the Los Angeles game we put too much pressure on ourselves with the big crowd and the TV. It got to some of the lads."