It took about five minutes to convince myself and much of Washington's soccer community that the 40-year-old legs beneath this 30-year-old body were not yet ready for the pros.

I recalled, unavoidably, George Plimpton, the one-time designated last-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, causing a fumble on his first play from scrimmage.

I was determined not to fumble.

I never saw the ball.

Standing in goal for one of about 16 pickup teams thrown together to give 180 or so players a chance to say they tried out for the Diplomats at Mason District Park in Annandale yesterday morning, I was determined not to look too bad. After all, I had played in amateur and semipro leagues with and against several of these very players.

I wish I had an instant-replay chance at the goal they scored off me.

It was a smiple play, a routine, schoolbook corner kick situation. The play started to my right. I ran out, thinking, "I'll show these guys. I'll be in the flow."

I never saw it. R. J. Dutton did, however. The 23-year-old red-haired sweeper back -- that's a defensive position -- planted his forehead in the low arching ball's line of flight and steered it toward the net from 12 yards out.

One of my fullbacks lunged at it desperately while I stood, badly out of position. "What am I doing way out here?" I asked myself.

Dutton, who came from Ocala, Fla., on the advice of his coach, former Howard University and Baltimore Comets standout Alvin Henderson -- now Dr. Henderson -- knew where he was. And why.

Of those players who showed up, perhaps half were American or Canadian. Others were Latin American, European, Asian, Middle Eastern or Caribbean. A microcosm of Washington's soccer scene, although many had come from points much further away.

Karim Mardaniou, smooth Turkish defender who saved me much embarrasment, said he flew in from Salt Lake City.

"I'm really tired," he said. "I only hope I get a chance, because it's so hard with this kind of tryout."

Yesterday's five-hour session was run by the Diplomats' assistant coach, Joe Mallett, former goalkeeper Eric Martin and Georges Edeline. Edeline is head coach at George Washington University and directs camps for the Diplomats. Players were put on random teams and played 35-minute games, after which the best performers were selected to play again.

As play got started shortly before 10 a.m., groups of sideline critics formed. Some were composed of players who had played together in the past, some were determined by nationality.

Some players were clearly out for a lark, to measure themselves against the competition. Others knew they had a chance or believed they did.

"I look out here and see what kind of talent is here, and I look at the Dips, and see what they've got, and I figure if I get a fair tryout, I can walk out of here with a smile," said one local player from Trinidad.

"I've been doing this now for 14 years," Diplomat Coach Gordon Bradley said. "And I haven't found a player this way yet."

The problem is, he explained, that many of the players do not realize the difference in quality between the amateur leagues and the North American Soccer League.

"Look at a club like Dallas, who play here Sunday," Bradley pointed out. "You have six Bundesliga (West German First Division) players, a first-class Brazilian player and a top Argentine. There's no comparison."

Nevertheless, he said, "the level has increased tremendously and there's a lot of talent here."

Other club insiders conceded that the chances of finding players for the Diplomats' roster were slim, but felt yesterday's tryouts -- the best attended ever -- provided an excellent chance to improve the club's relations with the local soccer community.

"At least we are giving local players a chance to see if they measure up," one said.

The best of the crop are likely to be asked to return for a practice match against the Diplomat reserves.

One of the more experienced and talented players in Annandale yesterday -- although a bit out of practice -- found his way to Washington in a most unusual manner. A little more than two months ago, Karim Karimi was in Afghanistan, a member of his country's first national team. Because of the uncertain political circumstances there, Karimi said through a relative who acted as interpreter, he bribed someone to get a false passport. He flew to India, to West Germany, then to Washington, where he has applied for political asylum.

"We watched the Dips' game against Philadelphia last week," the relative said. "And I think he's stronger than all those players -- except Johan Cruyff, of course."