Washington Diplomat defender Don Droege, recovering from a broken foot, was waiting to greet his teammates at National Airport when they returned from Tampa yesterday.

Spotting Droege in the terminal, fellow defender Robert Iarusci yelled: "Hey Don, where were you when we needed you?"

Iarusci was joking. But to Coach Gordon Bradley, the Diplomats' injury situation is not funny.

With Droege out at least two more weeks and Jim Steele and Mike Dillon probably gone for the season, the last thing Washington needed in Saturday's season-opening 3-2 shootout loss to Tampa Bay was another injury.

Naturally, one occurred. Naturally, it affected a key defensive player.

In the 50 minutes that he played Saturday night, Wim Jansen, Johan Cruyff's Dutch World Cup teammate, showed why Bradley wanted him so badly for the midfield. But early in the second half, Jansen pulled a groin muscle and had to leave the game. Without the 5-foot-7 tactician, Washington's midfield play sagged considerably.

"It is still quite sore," Jansen said yesterday. "I hope with treatments this week that I can play Saturday in Tulsa."

Even if Jansen can play against the Roughnecks Saturday, the Diplomats are still in need of another defender. In Tampa, Washington was forced to play the last 15 minutes with six offensive players and only four defensive players on the field.

Protecting a one-goal lead on the road, a coach would want the opposite alignment.

Washington's defensive corps was so thin that Cruyff spent much of the last 30 minutes -- 15 regulation, 15 overtime -- in the defensive zone, helping out. 3

"Maybe I'll have to go back and play defense," he said yesterday with a shrug.

Cruyff could play sweeper, but he is far more valuable in the middle of the field, as he proved Saturday when he set up both of Alan Green's first-half goals.

Right now, Bradley has a starting defensive four of Iarusci and Tommy O'Hara, both of whom have proven they are solid players, and Carmine Marcantonio and Gary Darrell, midfielders playing out of position. What's more, if any of the four gets hurt the Dips have no experience on the bench at the moment, especially if Jansen, who could drop back to defense, is out.

"We need another defender," Bradley said yesterday. "It isn't as if the three out now are coming back next week. I think I have to make some kind of deal this week."

Last week, Bradley tried to acquire Vancouver center back John Craven. Craven, 32, has been involved in a dispute with Vancouver over an assistant coaching job he expected to get this season and was apparently eager to come to Washington.

But, just when Bradley thought he had made the deal, Whitecap General Manager Tony Waiters called it off. Now, Bradley is looking both outside the league, at several players in Europe, and in the American Conference.

Overall, the Dips came out of the opener battered, but certainly not bowed. Cruyff, who did not take part in the shootout because of a bad bruise on his left knee, was walking with little trouble yesterday and said he will practice today. Green, who aggravated his sprained left ankle, also said he felt fine, leaving Jansen as the only question mark among those who started the weekend healthy.

"The result wasn't good," said Cruyff, "but you can see the potential this team has. We will get better as the season goes on and we know each other better. Also, we must be healthy."

General Manager Andy Dolich, who called the Dips ticket office throughout the game, was exultant about the interest created by the telecast of the game. "We had over 500 calls during the game," he said. "we lost, but no one can say it wasn't entertaining."

For the first 45 minutes it was not only entertaining but was also perhaps the best soccer ever played by a team representing Washington. With Cruyff at the controls and Juan-Jose Lozano and Jansen helping him dominate the midfield, the Dips were vastly superior to the Rowdies, one of the league's four best teams last season.

"We should have won easily," said Iarusci, who almost stopped Refic Kosic's tying goal from going into the net. "The second half we let up because we had the lead. It shouldn't have happened. But we'll learn from it."

When the game came down to the shootout none of the three men who make up Washington's $4 million midfield was involved. Cruyff and Jansen were hurt and Lozano has not had enough shootout experience in practice for Bradley to use him in a game yet.

"But that will come," Bradley said, smiling. "We'll get healthy and when we do . . ." He left the rest unsaid and was off to try and find a healthy defender.