The Washington Diplomats played their best game of the soccer season tonight. It wasn't good enough.
Revamped and apparently revitalized, the Diplomats outplayed the Fort Lauderdale Strikers -- one of the league's best teams -- but came out on the short end of a 2-1 score in front of 14,716 in Lockhart Stadium.
The Strikers won on two brilliant goals, one by Gerd Mueller and one by midfielder Eduardo Bonvallet. Both came in the second half, Bonvallet's with 19:33 to play, and they overcame Alan Green's first-half goal for Washington.
"It was our best 90 minutes of the season, no doubt about it," said Washington Coach Gordon Bradley. "We played hard and we had chances. The players did everything I could ask of them, except win."
That disappointing last line, the team's fourth road loss in four tries this season, dropped the Dips' season mark to 3.5. The Strikers, who may have the league's least knowledgeable fans, are 8.2. They were cheered wildly as they took their postgame victory lap, by the same fans who had booed them lustily for trailing, 1-0, at the end of a superb first half of soccer.
Washington had the lead at intermission on one of its most dynamic maneuvers in memory.
It came in the game's 15th minute. Johan Cruyff, playing more in the middle of the field at Bradley's request, created the play and Green finished it.
Standing stock-still as Striker defender Ken Fogarty tried to push the ball upfield, Cruyff suddently darted into Fogarty's path and stripped him of the ball. Before Fogarty knew what had happened, Cruyf was flying down the center of the field with Green on his left and only defender Arsene Auguste between them and goalkeeper Steve Zerhusen.
Cruyff timed his move perfectly, pulling Auguste toward him, then sliding the ball to Green as he dashed into the penalty box. Zerhusen came out to meet Green, who deked rith and shot.
Auguste's last-second dive was too late and defender John Pot, who had moved in behind Zerhusen, couldn't stop the low line drive from 15 yards out. It was 1-0, Washington, 14:29 into the game.
The Diplomats continued to play well the rest of that half. Bradley's decision to bench Sonny Asken and more Carmina Marcantonio from defense to midfield seemed to have a positive effect on the team.
Cruyff, who had been asking Bradley for another defensive midfielder for several weeks, moved to the middle as his part of the bargain and was brilliant.
Paired in the offensive half of the midfield with Cruyff, Juan Jose Lozano created one chance after another for himself and for teammates. Washington's best chance to score in the second half came when Lozano threaded his way through three defenders and fed Cryuff cutting in on the left side. But Cryuff got off a weak 10-yard shot and Zerhusen stopped it.
"They were as difficult as any team we've played this season," said Bonvallet. "They have three great players in Cruyff, Lazano and (Wim) Jansen."
But, in spite of their improvement tonight, the Dips still aren't finishing their plays and again were hurt by Washington's lingering malady, the crucial defensive mistake.
The first one came early in the second half when the Dips failed to clear the zone after a Striker attack. Fort Lauderdale captain Ray Hudson stole a clearing pass and fed Alex Schoenmaker on the right-hand side.
Schoenmaker, playing his first NASL game -- he came over from Holland this week -- slipped a pass into the middle to Mueller, who bombed a 15-yard shot past Washington goalie Bill Irwin for a 1-1 tie at 50:14.
Mueller's goal spoiled a brilliant first half for Irwin, marked by four excellent saves and redeemed Mueller, who had been booed for heading an eight-yard shot over the net with Irwin out of position.
"It's unbelievable the way this season is going," Dip defender Bob Iarusci marveled. "We outplay them the whole game, make two mistakes and get punished both times. I'm sick and tired of it all. We all are."
Bonvallet's winner was especially disheartening for Washington since he went almost half the length of the field to score.
Taking the ball outside the 35-yard line, Bonvallet dashed down the left side. He went past Joe Horvath. Then he went past Iarusci. As he cut in on Irwin the goalie moved to protect the short side. Bonvallet dribbled a tad toward the middle and rolled a perfectly placed 10-yard shot that just caught the far, right-hand post.
"He made a fabulous play," Bradley said. "You have to give him credit for that. He wanted the goal and he got it."
The Chilean midfielder, known more for his defensive skills, agreed with Bradley. "When you play only defense, people here do not notice you," he said. "They only notice goals."
The Fort Lauderdale fans have a little trouble even noticing goals, but they did notice this one. So did the Diplomats. During the remainder of the game they pressured Zerhusen consistently.
But, with ample help from his defense, the 21-year-old Baltimore native, a 1979 Maryland grduate, held on. The Dips' best chance for the equalizer came with 5:30 left, when Cruyff blasted a 12-yard shot Zerhusen bobbled. The goalie then watched as the ball rolled off the post and toward the net before Fogarty kicked it away.
"Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't," Cruyff said with a shrug. "It was better tonight, the whole team. I'm disappointed we lost but I feel much better than last week."
Cruyff also had a few choice words for referee David Socha, who allowed a very physical game, certainly not to the Dips' advantage. "He's useless," Cruyff said. "less than useless."