Defensive blunders early and the brilliance of Johan Cruyff late ended the season for the Washington Diplomats yesterday.
Cruyff, 32 year old superstar for the Los Angeles Aztecs, ran half the length of the field, left four Diplomat defenders in his wake and scored the winning goal 7:17 into sudden-death overtime, giving the Aztecs a 4-3 win in front of 14,802 at RFK Stadium. The victory gave L.A. a 2-0 margin in their first round North American Soccer League playoff series.
Cruyff's dash wiped out Mike Dillon's goal with 3:46 left in regulation. Dillon tied the game, giving the Dips life just when it seemed their season was over. His goal came with Washington a man short, Alan Green having been ejected with 23:31 left in the game.
"Cruyff was the difference in this series," Dip Coach Gordon Bradley said. "You could see today the difference a superstar makes. He is not the key to their team; he is their team."
Mexican midfielder Sanchez Galindo put up Cruyff's clincher. Galindo eluded Carmine Marcantonio, Cruyff's shadow all day, and slid a pass to Cruyff, who was in full stride.
The Dutchman moved in on Washington defenders Jim Steele and Tommy O'Hara with Galindo on his left. Marcantonio and Dillon came back and got into the play just as Cruyff made his move.
"We got back there and were turning to meet him when all of a sudden he stopped dead and we went by him," said Marcantonio. "I thought I had him; Mike thought he had him. We didn't."
"When I saw him coming I started thinking about cutting down his angles," said goalkeeper Bill Irwin, who had stopped three Cruyff drives in regulation to keep the Dips in contention. "He came in, faked left, then shot right. He curled it by me.
"He came out on top in the end."
The Dips played the last 23:31 of regulation and the overtime a man shy. Referee David Socha ejected Green, the Dips' leading scorer, when Green bumped him after Socha missed an apparent hand ball by the Aztecs in the penalty box.
"I turned to look for him (Socha) and ran smack into him," said Green, who had never been ejected from an NASL game. "It was an accident. I never said a word to him. I just couldn't believe it."
Bradley refused to comment on the officiating but Madison Square Garden President Sonny Werblin was more than willing.
"Cruyff wasn't the difference in this game," Werblin said. "The referee was. He took the game away from us. How could he take a player off like that in a playoff game?
"The person he should have ejected was Cruyff. How can he let him get away with intimidating our players the way he did, yelling at them during the timeout when one of their players was hurt?
"The referee just stood there and didn't do a damn thing about it."
Socha had nothing to do with the three Los Angeles goals in regulation. The Dips took a 1-0 lead at 9:05 when Green was pulled down in the box by Willem Suurbier and Socha awarded Washington a penalty kick. Bobby Stokes converted easily.
But the Dips couldn't stand the prosperity. Less than six minutes later, Robert Iarusci, who came out at halftime because of a pinched nerve in his neck, tried to clear the ball from the Washington penalty area.
Instead, he dribbled the ball off of his foot to Leo Van Veen. Van Veen found Chris Dangerfield on the other side of the penalty box and Dangerfield easily beat Irwin from 16 yards for a 1-1 tie at 14:55.
"I just can't believe it," said a completely dejected Iarusci, his streak of playing on three straight NASL champions over. "I hurt the neck in practice Friday but I felt okay before the game. Then when I tried to turn to clear the ball the neck snapped on me again. I feel like I was responsible for this loss by myself."
Iarusci's error hurt, but it wasn't the end of the game, or the Dip blunders. At 21:47 Cruyff charged down the left side and slid a pass to Dangerfield in the box. He appeared stopped by O'hara and Dillon but somehow eluded them and got the ball to Van Veen. The 6-3 Dutchman beat Irwin with a low shot as Irwin came out of the net to meet him.
The Dips got back to 2-2 at 30:22 when Steele and Sakib Viteskic, the focus of squabbling on the club earlier this week, hooked up. Steele took the ball away from a diving keeper Colin Boulton and fed Viteskic who had an open net from five yards.
"What happened before the game was irrelevant," Steel said with a shrug. "On the field we were all trying to win the damn game."
It was another defensive mistake, this one by Gary Darrell, Iarusci's replacement, that gave the Aztecs a 3-2 lead at 53:17, on a 15-yard shot by Dangerfield.
"You simply cannot give away two goals and win a soccer game, especially a playoff game," Bradley said. "That's what we did, gave them two goals, perhaps three."
Bradley inserted Paul Cannell and Kenneth Mokojoa to help get the equalizer and it was their aggressive play in the penalty box that set up Dillon for his five-yard kick with 3:46 left.
"It's hard to believe it's over," Irwin said. "We've worked since January for this, then one play and it's over. Cruyff just broke all our hearts."