Moments before the Washington Diplomats kicked off their game with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers Saturday night, Washington General Manager Andy Dolich stood in the press box, staring down at the field, as the players warmed up.

"This," said Dolich, "could be our most important game of the year."

The eighth game on a 32-game schedule the most important game of the year? "It'll show what kind of a team this is," Dolich said, "character-wise."

The Dips lost, 2-1. But when it was over, no one in the Washington locker room was feeling too bad. Disappointed, yes. But devastated, no.

Though the Diplomats lost the game, they may have taken a major step towards becoming the kind of team everyone has expected them to be since Johan Cruyff moved east in February.

"It was much better tonight, perhaps the best we've been all season," Cruyff said. "It was encouraging in terms of the way we played."

The way Washington played was light years away from its performance six days earlier in an embarrassing 4-2 loss at home to Portland. It was that kind of improvement that Dolich, Coach Gordon Bradley and in absentia -- the Madison Square Garden braintrust -- were looking for.

This was a game played at the end of a stormy week, one which saw Bradley and Cruyff sit down to try and thrash out their problems -- problems which had been creating tension almost since Cruyff arrived.

Cruyff had been openly critical of Bradley after the Portland game, saying the team had "no balance at midfield," the reason being Bradley's refusal to play two defensive-minded midfielders instead of just one.

At the same time, Bradley was less than thrilled with Cruyff, who spent much of the first seven games at left wing. Bradley wanted him in the center field controlling the attack.

Once the disagreement became public, Bradley knew he and Cruyff had to talk about it. This week, they did, at length.

The upshot of the talks was a compromise: Bradley would give Cruyff his second defensive midfielder, benching Sonny Askew while moving Carmine Marcantonio from defense to midfield. In return, Cruyff would stick to the central portion of the field.

"I think talking about it was good for both of us," Bradley said. "Not just because we heard what the other guy had to say but because I think we feel closer to one another now. That can only help the team."

It seemed to help Saturday. With Cruyff and Juan Jose Lozano playing the up portion of midfield and acting as playmakers, Washington's offense was a constant threat.

Lozano, finally healthy after struggling with an instep injury all spring, made several brilliant moves. Cruyff set up Alan Green's goal with a good steal and pass.

But the Diplomats, now 3-5, still have a long way to go. They were weak in one crucial area Saturday: finishing their plays. So, in spite of controlling the flow of the game, they only had one goal.

"It will come," Bradley said, sounding more positive than at any time this season. "We showed what kind of a team we can be tonight. We're still not where we want to be, but this is progress."

The other positive note was the improved play of goalkeeper Bill Irwin. Bradley considered benching the 6-foot-2 Irishman after seven shaky performances, but Irwin returned to his solid form of the last two seasons when given the start in Fort Lauderdale. The first half he made several excellent saves, and in the second both Fort Lauderdale goals came on good shots from close in.

The season is now one-quarter complete, and the Diplomats are 29 points behind the Cosmos in the National Conference East. They still are frustrated by their road record of 0-4. What is more, two of the three men counted on to score goals, Cruyff and Bobby Stokes, have yet to score this season.

"We're due, aren't we?" said defender Bob Iarusci. "I'll tell you, usually after a loss I have a lot of critical things to say. But we played hard tonight. I guarantee you Atlanta is in for a long night next Saturday because we're all sick of losing."