It would be nice to write that the Cosmos went out like true champions Saturday: To say after winning back-to-back Soccer Bowls in 1977 and 1978, the Cosmos took their loss in the 1979 semifinals to Vancouver with dignity and grace.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Even before Saturday's two games -- the Cosmos won the first, 3-2, in a shootout, then lost the mini-game, 1-0, also in a shootout -- the Cosmos were making excuses.

Their brilliant defender, Carlos Alberto, had been suspended by NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam because he allegedly spat on a linesman after Vancouver's initial 2-0 win in the series.

The Cosmos claimed that Alberto had been denied due process by Woosnam because he had not given him a hearing before announcing the season-long suspension. So, the Cosmos said, they would sue Woosnam and the league.

According to witnesses in Vancouver and the referee's same report, Alberto did spit on the linesman, right after throwing his jersey on him. If that is the case, then Woosnam had no responsibility to hold a hearing. In fact, he had a responsibility to the league to act swiftly and decisively which -- for once -- he did.

Earlier this season, in another Cosmos loss to Vancouver, this one in Giants Stadium, Giorgio Chinaglia ripped a red card (for ejection) out of the referee's hands, tore it up and threw it on the ground.

Woosnam took no action then, claiming that since Chinaglia made no physical contact with the referee, there was no reason to discipline him. That was a weak argument than, and to claim that Woosnam should have delayed action after an action as blatant as Alberto's, is a weaker argument now.

The quality of officiating in the North American Soccer League certainly leaves a lot to be desired. But one thing no professional league in any sport can afford is anarchy on the field. Any player who shows blatant disrespect for an official has to be disciplined.

And, when the act of disrespect is as ugly as Alberto's, the discipline must be strict, tough and uncompromising. Woosnam was wrong in July when he took no action against Chinaglia. He was correct in taking action against Alberto.

The Cosmos also argued that because their midfielder, Eskandarian, had received a red card in the opening game, one of the two players should have been allowed to play Saturday. League rules -- they said -- state that two players cannot be suspended in the same game.

Wrong again, Cosmos. That rule holds only during the regular season. Playoff rules specifically state that any player given a red card sits out the next game. If five players are red-carded, five players sit out the next game.

Arguing that the league was preventing them from putting a "representative" team on the field the Cosmos did manage to show up Saturday.

And, along with the Whitecaps, they put on a wonderful show for 44,109 fans and a national television audience.

The entire grueling afternoon of soccer, the entire series and, in fact, the entire season finally came down to two man -- Vancouver's superb goalkeeper Phil Parkes and the Cosmos' Nelsi Morais.

Morais made one fake too many and ran out of time before he could get the ball into the net and Vancouver had won the shootout, 3-2, to advance to the Soccer Bowl against Tampa Bay, which will be making a second straight appearance.

The Whitecaps richly earned their victory. Including the minigame they beat the Cosmos in four of five games this season. Their win will be good for the NASL in the long run because it proves to all 23 teams that the Cosmos can be beaten.

"Vancouver won because the league wanted them to win," said Prof. Julio Mazzei, the director of the Cosmos. "The officials were against us in the playoffs."

Ridiculous.

For one thing, the officials Saturday let Chinaglia get away with pushing a linesman for calling a Vancouver goal good in the minigame -- the call was later reversed -- without so much as a caution.

If anything, the league wants the Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl. The Cosmos' presence means a sellout in Giants Stadium -- 77,000 people. Even though Woosnam claims that more than 60,000 tickets have been sold, the absence of the Cosmos and the presence of television undoubtedly will hold the crowd down. That will cost the league money.

And, even though a Vancouver-Tampa Bay matchup should be an excellent one with the Rowdies' great Rodney Marsh playing his last game, ABC's ratings will be hurt by the Cosmos loss.

Thus, to argue that the league wanted the Cosmos to lose, is merely another excuse.

The scene in the Cosmos locker room after the loss was certainly not a pretty one. Only Ahmet Ertegun, the team president, had the class to go to the Vancouver locker room to congratulate the winners. The Cosmos kept their locker room closed to the press for 30 minutes after the game was over.

In the meantime, Jay Emmett, the No. 2 man in Warner Communications (the Cosmos' owners), exchanged angry words with frustrated reporters, at one point telling a guard to "shut that door in his face," when one writer asked why the locker room still was closed.

As the locker room began to empty later, one disgusted league official walked out the door, shook his head, and said, "The Cosmos are a bunch of crybabies."

Sadly, truer words never were spoken.