One goal and an excellent performance in goal by Bill Irwin was not enough for the Washington Diplomats tonight.

The Dips tried desperately to make a goal in the first three minutes stand up but finally buckled to the relentless pressure of the Los Angeles Aztecs in the final 25 minutes and took a 3-1 whipping in their North American Soccer League playoff opener in front of a crowd of 12,042 in the Rose Bowl.

The two teams will meet in the rematch of the two game series at 2:30 p. m. Sunday in Washington. The Dips must win that game to send the series into a 30 minute mini-game that afternoon.

"We got exactly what we wanted, a one-goal lead early," said Dips Coach Gordon Bradley. "But we just couldn't quite hold on."

Ironically, the turning point of the contest was an Aztec injury. With the Dips still leading 1-0 an Alan Green's goal at 2:54 Washington's Jim Steele and L. A.'s Walter Wagner collided at midfield.

Wagner apparently injured a leg and was replaced by Hubert Smeets, who eventually scored the winning and insurance goals.

"I guess it is ironic it happened that way," said Steele. "But they were just coming at us in waves all night long. We broke down completely in the midfield."

Irwin masked those breakdowns for the first 65 minutes, breaking out of a three-game slump with a series of marvelous saves, including three in the first three minutes of the second half of what appeared to be sure goals.

But he finally broke down at 65:30 when Bob Sibbald sent a perfect pass from the left corner to Chris Dangerfield, who booted a 15 yard bullet past Irwin before he could move.

"The first goal was a good goal I guess," said Irwin, who said he was disappointed with his play. "But the second goal wasn't. And that was the one that killed us."

The winner was set up by a series of events all involving Steele. First, he took Smeets down in the penalty box after the big Los Angeles forward had collided with Irwin. That earned him a warning from referee Dante Miglio.

Two minutes later he undercut Johan Cruyff 22 yards from the Washington net. Cruyff was awarded a free kick and Steele was presented with a yellow caution card.

Steele was still shaking his head about the call when Cruyff looped the free kick into the Dips box. Irwin and defender Bob Iarusci dove for it but it dribbled to the far post where Smeets slammed it in.

Frustrated, Steele exchanged words and a couple of punches with Aztecs midfielder Dave Shelton while Los Angeles was celebrating the goal at 78:24.

Steele then turned to see Tony Crescitelli running into the game to take his place. Instead of going to the bench, he stalked off the field. "I was amazed when Gordon took me out," said Steele. "Yes, my pride was hurt by it. I don't know why he did it.

I did it because we were down 2-1 and I needed an extra forward on at that point," Bradley said. "Jimmy knows that."

The extra forward did the Dips no good as the Los Angeles defense and goalkeeper Colin Boulton turned away two good runs by Green. Smeets got the clincher at 86:46 on a pass from Leo Van Veen and the Dips went home frustrated and with an 0-3 record in playoff competition in their six year history.

"The goalie played well," said Aztec Coach Rinus Michels. "We just kept pressing, waiting for our chances. They packed back on defense pretty much after they scored the first one."

Some of the Dips speculated that the early goal might have worked against them in the long run because they did back up too much on defense and let Los Angeles -- most notably Cruyff -- control the midfield.

Green's goal came as a result of a mistake by Sibbald. The defender tried to slide a pass back to Boulton in the penalty box and Green cut in between the two and stole the ball. He moved wide to his right, drew Boulton out and beat him from 12 yards.

"When we got the first goal we changed our game," said Green. I didn't think we should have done that. We should have attacked and attacked, kept on coming. But we didn't do that. It was a mistake I think."

Iarusci, who appeared to be the most distraught man in the locker room, agreed. "A lot of its is subconscious, you know," he said. "You don't want to slide back and pack the defense but you start thinking about it and thinking about it and the next thing you know everybody is back."

Even though he did not have a goal, the key man for the Aztecs was the remarkable Cruyff. Time and time again he set his teammates up in close as he constantly walked around the Washington defense.

"If you're creating as many chances as we were, one shot is bound to go in, it has to," pcruyff said. "Once we got the first one we were all right. It was a relief to get a goal. But nobody ever let his head down."

Michels said he felt his team "wanted to do too much too fast," in the first half and said he reminded them at halftime to be patient. "We were more stable the second half," he said. "We played with more patience and didn't get frustrated."

And the final result was that the Aztecs patience paid off and the Diplomats left The Rose Bowl shaking their heads and wondering about a comeback Sunday.

"They're like the Cosmos in a way," said Green. "They kept coming until we broke."