This has not been the most pleasant of springs for Washington Diplomat Coach Gordon Bradley.
The Dips, replete with new players, have yet to put their ideal 11 on the field, because they have had enough injuries to last until the apocalypse. They have lost two games they should have won. New star Johan Cruyff and the first list have had trouble adjusting to each other's styles of play.
And now, as the Diplomats prepare to host the Portland Timbers at 2:30 p.m. today at RFK Stadium, Bradley finds himself with a new, growing worry. Goalkeeping.
Bill Irwin has been Washington's goalie since Bradley became coach in 1978. He has had streaks of brilliance. He has nine shutouts, the club record. But in six games this season, Irwin has been shaky.
"He's made mistakes which have directly led to some goals," Bradley said. "When a defender makes a mistake, it can be covered up, But when a goalie makes a mistake, it usually ends showing for everyone to see. That's not fair, but that's the way it is."
Irwin is more aware and more concerned about the problem than anyone. The 28-year-old Irishman is one of the quietest people on the team, a noncomplainer who never faults his teammates when things go wrong. Now, he is fighting a loss of confidence and hoping he'll return to form sooner rather than later.
"I'm due for a shutout," he said Friday after practice. "We all are, the whole team. The last two years I've had bad patches but they came toward the middle of the season. I'm hoping this year the bad pitch has just come early and things will get better from here on in."
Irwin's last shutout was last July 4, 21 games ago. At that stage he had four shutouts in 18 games the season and nine in 45 games as a Diplomat.
"It's like a forward who hasn't had a goal for a while," Irwin said. "You find yourself worrying about it and the more you worry, the worse it gets. One good game could pop us all out of it."
Eric Martin, Irwin's predecessor in the Washington goals, thinks the problem has become one of confidence.
"Billy isn't going through anything different from whatr every goalie goes through," Martin said. "He's had a lapse of confidence. What he needs is to come out Sunday and make a couple of real tough saves early. That will get him started. A shutout would be even better though. There's nothing that feels better than that."
The Dips have given away one goal in each of their first six contests. Not all have been Irwin's fault. Just as a goalie is only as good as his defense when things are going well, he is only as bad as his defense when things are going wrong.
"It all goes hand in hand," said defender Robert Iarusci, who is questionable today because of a pinched nerve in his neck. "When the defense starts making mistakes, the goalie begins to lose confidence in it. When the goalie makes mistakes, the defense wonders about him. It's the same thing when everything is going well."
Irwin and Bradley agree that concentration lapses have been Irwin's problem this year.
"Billy's as dedicated a player, as hard a worker as we have," Bradley said. "the last thing you worry about with him is concentration. But that's been it, I think. Fortunately, that's correctable."
"When the ball's at the other end sometimes my mind starts to wander," Irwin said. "I become a spectator. "I've started talking to myself more to keep myself alert."
Often, Irwin is at his best when the Diplomat defense is in trouble. One of his best games last season was in the playoffs at Los Angeles, when he almost single-handedly held the Aztecs at bay for 65 minutes, in spite of constant pressure, before buckling the last 25.
"Billy's so big (6 feet 3, 215 pounds) that he needs to be moving all the time, needs to be on his toes," Iarusci said. "When things are quiet he tends to get a bit flat-footed."
Bradley is concerned about the situtation and has discussed it with Irwin. He may try to have the goalie work harder in practice to make him sharper the next few weeks.
Would he make a change? "I don't see it coming to that," Bradley said. "Billy's proven he's as good a goalie as there is in the league at times. I think he'll come out of this."
Bradley knows that a team which gives away a goal a game is not going to be able to contend with the top teams in the NASL. He also knows Irwin is capable of brilliance. Irwin has been nagged by minor injuries all spring and has yet to play a game at 100 percent.
Backup goalie Dragan Radovich remains questionalbe with an injured foot but is expected to dress today. If he cannot, Bradley probably will ask retired Diplomat Kurt Kuykendall, who stepped in during an emergency in indoor play two years ago, to dress . . . Dips are hoping for 14,000-15,000 fans if weather is good . . . Nick Charles' defection to Ted Turner's cable network in Atlanta will not affect his status as the Dips' TV color man -- which is a plus for the club.