After six weeks of anticipation the Washington Diplomats will begin finding out Saturday how good they are when they open their seventh North American Soccer League season here against the Tampa Bay Rowdies (WTTG-TV-5, 8 p.m.).
Since the day last month when Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff became a Diplomat, Washington has been mentioned as one of the NASL's elite, talked about in the same breath with the Cosmos, defending Soccer Bowl champion Vancouver and opening game opponent Tampa Bay.
Coach Gordon Bradley's team should find out quickly how good it is, even through Tampa Bar star Oscar Fabbiani is out with an ankle injury.
"I think we've got out best team, easily," Bradley, always the master of the understatement, said today. "We've got good players throughout the team, although our injuries on defense are a problem."
Even with three defenders -- Mike Dillon, Jim Steele and Don Droege -- sidelined for long periods with injuies, this should be an outstanding club.
"You can see it when we practice," backup striker Tony Crescitelli said. "Last year when we scrimmaged first team against second, we would beat the first string frequently, sometimes badly.
"This year, we've had four scrimmages and been killed every time, I think we've scored one goal. They beat us like 6-0 every time we play."
The major reason is Cruyff, but fellow midfielders Wim Jansen and Juan Jose Lozano also are major additions. All the Diplomats were marveling today at the abilities of Jansen, 33, a teammate of Cruyff on the Dutch national team for several years.
"Players like Wim and Johan, they are in another class," defenders Robert Iarusci said. "They do so many things well. Wim is amazing because he's so smart. He's always in position and never seems to lose the ball."
The Dips will open with their $4 million midfield -- Cruyff, Jansen, Lozano and Sonny Askew (who accounts for less than 1 percent of the $4 million) -- and will go with last year's leading scorer, Alan Green, and Bobby Stokes up front.Captain Gary Darrell, recovered from last year's knee surgery, will join Carmine Marcantonio, Iarusci and Tommy O'Hara on defense with Bill Irwin starting his third season in goal.
The Rowdies, Soccer Bowl loses the last two seasons, will have a different look from the club the Dips split two games with last season.
Peter Anderson has moved into Fabbiani's pot next to Neill Roberts, the tall South African purchased during the offseason from Atlanta. Steve Wegerle, the man Washington consideres the most dangerous Tampa Bay player, will start at right wing.
In goal, Winston DuBose will start over Zelkjo Bilezki, the leading goalie in the American Conference a year ago. DuBose, who trained outdoors in England this winter while Bilezki was playing indoors for Tampa Bay, apparently was shaper during exhibition play.
The Diplomats, full of confidence, say it does not matter who is in goal for Tampa Bay. "We have to establish out style of play early," said Cruyff. "We have to be aggressive."
To that end Cruyff has spent much time in practice this week yelling at defenders to push the ball up the field offensively. And the defenders are doing just what they're told.
"When a player like Johan tells you something, do it," Iarusci said. "Any one who doesn't recognize what king of a player he is has a problem."
Rowdies captain Jan Van Der Veen, also a Ducthman, played against Cruyff and Jansen in Europe.
"You must not let Cruyff get the ball," Van Der Veen said. "Once he does, he is impossible to stop. If we let Johan have a chance, surely he will succeed."
One thing Cruyff already has succeeded at is drawing a crowd, the Rowdies had sold more than 25,000 tickets by this afternoon and were expecting more than 40,000 for the game.