Before Washington midfielder Carmine Marcantonio was given the inevitable task last year of marking (guarding) international soccer star Johan Cruyff -- then with Los Angeles -- the four-year NASL veteran's claim to fame was being able to speak five languages.

The popular native of Italy who makes his home in Toronto contained Cruyff remarkably in three games (including the Washington-Los Angeles playoff games) in his first extended stint on defense.

"Oh, I got beat several times," said Marcantonio, who is enjoying his finest season as a Diplomat. "But it was a great experience. I like one-to-one challenges and here I was marking the best player in the world. We spoke Spanish to each other in the games."

Marcantonio and his Washington teammates still have nightmares about the first-round playoff game when Cruyff faked four players in scoring a goal that gave the Aztecs a 4-3 win in overtime and eliminated the Dips.

"That goal was the only one he scored while I marked him and actually it wasn't on me," said the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Marcantonio. "I went for a ball upfield and missed it. The L.A. player quickly passed it to Cruyff, who was on his way. He went by Jim Steele and Tommy O'Hara. By the time I caught up, Mike Dillon and I had no chance to stop him. He faked both of us and we fell."

Marcantonio doesn't mind falling on his face chasing Cruyff now. Cruyff is a Diplomat, of course, and Marcantonio couldn't be happier.

"I couldn't believe he was going to be my teammate," said Marcantonio, who lists Cruyff and Pele as his two favorite players. "Now, I can mark him in practice and it's fun."

Always a midfielder, Marcantonio gained the reputation as a utility performer with the '76 NASL champion Toronto Metros, where he began his NASL career, and the Dips two years ago.

"The last two years, Carmine didn't have the consistency necessary to be a regular on the team," Dip Coach Gordon Bradley said. "He has always been a utility man and a good one. A team needs a player who can fill in at different places."

Marcantonio's promotion came this season when Bradley, after watching his defence nearly decimated by injuries, installed his "utility man" at one of the center back positions.

It turned out to be one of Bradley's best moves. Marcantonio, speedy and excellent in the air, has done well. Marcantonio and his best friend, Bobby Iarusci; Tommy O'Hara; sweeper Nick Mijatovic, who replaced Gary Darrell, and goalkeeper Bill Irwin have improved.

"I think each game we have gotten stronger in the back," Marcantonio said. "We are beginning to understand one another. Nick and I are working well in the middle and I'm enjoying defense now."

"No, I'm not looking for any more defenders now," Bradley said. Carmine is playing very well. My center back last year, Don Droege, (he broke a bone in his foot in preseason) is completely well now but I can't take Carmine out.

"Carmine is a good, strong tackler and an aggressive player in the air," Bradley said. "I knew he could play defense, not because he did a good job on Johan last year, but I felt he had the tools to play the position. I had no reservations about putting him back there."

Being a midfielder with good shooting skills, Marcantonio gives the Dips an added dimension on offense. He has shocked everyone with two goals in Washington's four games.

"I scored only one goal in three years playing midfield," Marcantonio said. "Already, I have two."

As pleased as Marcantonio is, he is still restless over his contract. He failed to come to terms with the club last year and is playing out his option.

"I'm not asking for the world, I just want a decent salary," said Marcantonio, who earns $24,000-$28,000. "We're not that far apart in terms but I'd like to sign. If not, I guess I'll have to look elsewhere to play."

"We'll work it out," Bradley said. "There's no major problem."

Meanwhile, Marcantonio will remain a vital part of the defense. The Dips (2-2) are riding a two-game winning streak and will play in Toronto Sunday.

"I haven't played in Toronto since I left," Marcantonio said. "I'm looking forward to going back and playing in front of my family and friends."