The Washington Diplomats came within 135 seconds of getting their season off to a superb, triumphant start tonight but ended up limping off the Tampa Stadium field beaten and battered.

Leading the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 2-1, throughout most of the game, the Dips were tied with 2:15 left in regulation on a goal by Refic Kozic. That forced a shootout that went Tampa's way, 4-3, in an overtime sixth round as Peter Baralic beat Washington goalkeeper Bill Irwin with a twisting right-footed kick.

That gave the Rowdies a 3-2 victory, leaving the 31,082 in the stadium delighted and limp from exhaustion. It also left the Diplomats 0-1 and the Rowdies 1-0 in the 1980 North American Soccer League season.

Injury accompanied the insult of defeat. The Washington locker room resembled a hospital emergency room.

Johan Cruyff, who set up both of Alan Green's first-half goals, could barely walk, the result of a knee injury that kept him from participating in the shootout. His countryman, Wim Jansen, was hobbling with a groin injury that forced him out for the final 40 minutes. Green held an ice pack to an ankle sprain and Irwin had an ice pack on his ribs.

"It's a difficult result to take because we played well most of the night," Coach Gordon Bradley said. "The first half we outplayed them, the second they controlled more of the play."

Cruyff, the Dutch magician, was largely responsible for Washington's control of the first half. Tampa Bay grabbed a 1-0 lead at 6:40 when Gary Darrell, moved from midfield to the back line because of three preseason injuries on defense, misplayed a ball into a Tampa Bay goal.

Baralic had sent a long pass/shot into the penalty area and Irwin was about to pick it up when Darrell, not looking at him, collided with the goalie, at the same time kicking the ball -- right to Neill Roberts who scored easily.

Then Cruyff went into his act. After saving a ball from going over the end line to give his team a corner kick, Cruyff lofted the ball into the penalty area. Bob Iarusci headed it to Green and he scored on an eight-yard left footed kick for a 1-1 tie at 10:48.

"Johan set it up," said Green, who led the Dips with 16 goals a year ago. "He put them on the defensive with his kick, then it came right to me in close."

Cruyff soon set up goal number two. Making one of his patented runs, he drew three Rowdie defenders to him before flipping a pass -- which it Kozio and bounced right to Green. The 5-foot-7 whirling dervish had the ball past Winston DuBose from 15 yards out before one could say, "Bravo, Cruyff," let alone "Goal, Green."

That came at 13:10 and it appeared the 2-1 margin would stand up and break Tampa Bay's five-game home-opener winning streak.

"Right after the goals I didn't think two would be enough," said Green. "Just when I began thinking it would, I was proved right."

The Rowdies had applied consistent pressure throughout the final 30 minutes, dominating the midfield as the Dips were clearly affected by the absence of Jansen's steadying influence.

Still, Washington looked able to hang on as Irwin made several excellent saves on shots from close in by the Rowdies. Finally, Steve Wegerle, who has set up teammates time and again throughout the second half, took a corner kick to Irwin's left with the clock under 2:30.

Wegerle lofted the ball into the middle of the box, where the 6-2 Roberts skied over the smaller Washington defenders, beating Irwin to possession. He headed the ball off the left post. With Irwin caught in traffic, the ball came out to Kozio.

His first shot was stopped by Iarusci's dive but the ball rebounded right back to him and he scored his first NASL goal with 2:15 left.

The Dips had one more change in the final minute when Sonny Askew was tripped near the penalty box. Refree David Socha ruled Askew outside the box -- thus no penalty kick -- and the game went into overtime.

Cruyff and Kenneth Mokgojoa had chances in the overtime but could not convert. Peter Anderson netted the ball for the Rowdies with nine seconds left but the goal was disallowed -- he was clearly offside.

That set up the shootout, the NASL's version of Chinese water torture.

Tommy O'Hara out the Dips up, 1-0, in the first round but Wes McLeod tied it up in the second after Askew had missed. Bobby Stokes missed for Washington and Mike Connell made it 2-1, Tampa Bay, with a curving drive past Irwin.

Green tied it in the fourth round but Roberts answered and it was 3-2, Rowdies, going into the would-be final round. Iarusci tied it at 3-3 and the shootout went into overtime when Wegerle fired wide left.

Carmine Marcantonio missed badly to DuBose's right and Baralic cleanly beat Irwin to end the long evening.

"Any loss hurts, this one a little more," Cruyff said. "I wanted to take the shootout but I could barely walk. I couldn't cut at all."

He smiled thinly, thinking of what almost was. "Really," he said, "this is a pity."