Johan Cruyff will be the main concern of the Washington Diplomats when they open playoff competition Wednesday night in the Rose Bowl against the Los Angeles Aztecs (WTTG-TV-5 -- 11 p.m., 30-minute delay).
Cruyff, the 32-year-old Dutch superstar, almost single-handedly defeated the Dips last month in RFK Stadium, setting up his team's two first-half goals, then moving back to defense the second half to protect his club's lead for a 2-1 victory.
"The thing about a player like Cruyff is he's capable of bringing his level of play up almost anytime he wants to," said Dip Coach Gordon Bradley after putting his team through a one-hour workout this afternoon. "He's got so many skills that you can't stop him completely. You have to try and stop the rest of the team and control him to some extent."
Bradley was not certain exactly how he would go about trying to stop Cruyff. Rene Breevoort and Carmine Marcantonio split halves trying to stop Cruyff last time and Bradley said he may try Marcantonio again Wednesday.
The Dips, who flew here Monday, enter the two-game first-round series -- the return match will be Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in RFK Stadium -- as healthy as they have been all season.
The Diplomats have never won a North American Soccer League play-off game, losing to the Cosmos, 2-0, in 1976 and to Portland, 2-1, last season in one-game eliminations. Sunday's game will be the first home playoff contest ever for the club.
"It's likely that a lot of series will end up in the minigame (the 30-minute game played in case of a split) and this series might be like that," said Bradley. "But I'm glad we have a homeground advantage if there is a minigame."
The teams divided two regular season games, with the Dips winning here and the Aztecs winning in Washington. But since that loss on national television, the Diplomats have insisted to a man that they are better than Los Angeles and will prove it in the playoffs.
"I think we've felt all along that we had a better side both times we played them," said Bobby Stokes, who will start with Alan Green up front."But in the second game a lot of the lads were nervous because of the national TV. We put a lot of extra pressure on ourselves because of that and the big crowd [almost 27,000] and it hurt us. That won't be a problem this time."
If anything, it would seem, the Dipsmay have a problem Wednesday because they know they can lose and still win the series at home. And, they might be somewhat overconfident. Paul Cannell has said on a number of occasions that he would "bet his wages," that the Dips will beat Los Angeles and most of the players appeared of a similar mind today."
"I think we're quite confident," said Green, the team's leading scorer. "We know we're a good team and Sunday's game (a 5-4 loss to the Cosmos) should prove to us that we can play with any team.
"But we respect Los Angeles. You have to respect a team that has a player like Cruyff. Any time he's on the field, he's dangerous."
The Dips finished the season 19-11; the Aztecs were 18-12. Even though he played in only 23 games, Cruyff was Los Angeles' leading scorer with 13 goals and 16 assists for 42 points. He was followed by countryman Leo Van Veen, who had 13 goals and six assists. Goalkeeper Colin Boulton had a 1.21 goals-against average.
During the season, the Dips were led by Green, who set club records with 16 goals and nine assists for 41 points and Joe Horvath with seven goals and a club-record 18 assists for 32 points.
"This team has a lot of confidence right now," said Bradley. "We would like another shot at the Cosmos because we feel like on our day we can beat them. But right now we're concentrating on trying to get a win in the Rose Bowl."
Or as General Manager John Carbray put it, "Beating the Cosmos would be great. But beating Los Angeles and getting by the first round of the playoffs would be a major step forward in itself for this organization."