The Washington Diplomats reached a new low point in their already disastrous season tonight.
Playing without the injured Johan Cruyff and playing 62 minutes shy a man, the Dips dropped a 2-1 shootout decision to the lowly Atlanta Chiefs in front of 5,485 in Atlanta Stadium.
Tony Whelan and David Byrne scored on the third and fourth rounds of the shootout for Atlanta, giving the Chiefs a 2-0 edge in the shootout after both regulation and overtime had ended with the teams tied 1-1.
But it was not the shootout that had the Diplomats, now 3-6 on the season, literally kicking chairs in their locker room. It was the ejection of Juan Jose Lozano at the 42:8 mark that had them cursing referee Fred Usher.
"That guy is the worst referee we've had all season," said Coach Gordon Bradley. "He completely lost control of the game. He didn't know what he was doing. He sent Juan off when he didn't even see the play."
The play occurred almost on the midfield mark. It came 22 minutes after Lozano and Joe Horvath, starting in place of the injured Cruyff, had set Alan Green up at 20:45 for his eighth goal of the season.
Washington was in complete control. Lozano, hawked all night by Branco Radovic, became entangled with the Chief midfielder. A moment later, Radovic was on the ground.
There are several versions of how Radovic ended up on the ground.The only thing all parties agreed on was that, whatever Lozano did, it was a retaliatory move.
Lozano, speaking with Cruyff as his interpreter, gave this explanation: "All night long he had been tugging, punching and pulling me. Finally he grabbed my stomach and pinched. I tried to pull my arm back to get free. Then he was down."
Radovic told a slightly different story: "I was just marking him tight," he said. "There was contact, sure. But then he just blasted me with his elbow."
Referee Usher, in a written statement, went along with Radovic: "I saw Lozano strike an opponent (Radovic) in his groin area. I did not see his (Radovic's) offense (against Lozano) but the lineman did. He said the player was holding Lozano."
Lozano's ejection completely turned the game around. For the remainder of regulation and throughout the overtime, Atlanta, now 3-7 after stopping a six-game losing streak, controlled the play.
The Chiefs tied the game at 1-1 early in the second half. Byrne, the NASL's leading scorer indoors but an ineffective outdoor player, set up the play. He ran the ball down in the right corner and sent a crossing pass into the box. There, Jeff Bourne knocked it down, drew goalie Bill Irwin out and slipped a pass to Keith Furphy, who scored on a short eight-yard shot high into the net.
From that moment on, playing 10 against 11, Washington's best chance was to hand on and get the game into a shootout. The Dips accomplished that much with some good defensive work. But the shootout, as with everything else this season, was a horror show for the visitors.
Green, who has now scored eight of the team's 17 goals and four of the five road goals the club has scored (it is now 0-5 on the road) led off for Washington.
He found himself facing Bill Mishalow, who came into the game at the end of the overtime in place of Lou Cioffi, who started his first professional game for the Chiefs. In the shootout, though, Coach Dan Wood went with the veteran.
Green appeared to beat Mishalow, faking left, going right and scoring from 10 yards. But the ever-present Usher ruled that Green had shot after the five-second limit had expired. "I never heard a whistle," said Green. "I thought it was good."
Leading off for Atlanta, Bourne hit the right post. Mishalow then stopped Tommy O'Hara and Irwin smothered Furphy's line drive. It was still 0-0 after two rounds and neither team looked capable of scoring any time before New Year's.
The Dips kept the streak intact. Mishalow acrobatically stopping Bob Iarusci. That was the beginning of the end for Washington. Whelan cleanly beat Irwin for a 1-0 Atlanta lead. Then, Joe Horvath hit the post and Byrne was perfect, giving the Chiefs an insurmountable 2-0 lead and the game.
"Maybe it's just one of those years," said Iarusci. "We played 10 on 11 and lost in a shootout. The injuries, the referee messing up, they're all excuses. But we're due for a break, aren't we?"
In the opposite locker room, Wood, under fire because of the Chiefs' horrid play most of the season, admitted that Lozano's ejection, "was the kind of break we needed. We got going after that, played much better."
Few teams will play worse with a man advantage.
Cruyff, who sat next to Bradley in street clothes the entire game, had no complaints with his teammates' play. "They all worked hard," he said. "That referee didn't knw anything. If Lozano had stayed in we would have won the game, no question about it.
"I can't believe we're 3-6, but we are."
Normally a quiet group after a loss, the Diplomats were clearly angry that after this one. They grouped around Iarusci's locker in various stages of undress as he described talking to Usher about Lozano's ejection.
"He didn't see the play," Iarusci said. "When he went over to the lineman he asked him 'what happened?' I asked him if he didn't know what happened how could he give a red (ejection) card. It was unbelievable."
"The guy was pitiful all night," Bobby Stokes interjected.
Pitiful or not, it is the Diplomats, now losers of three straight, who find themselves in a pitiful situation. Not only are the Cosmos rapidly disappearing from sight in the National Conference East, but Lozano's red card means he will not play next Sunday when the Cosmos come to RFK Stadium.
"We'll turn it around," Bradley promised. "There are too many good attitudes on this team not to. We'll be all right.
"But," he added with a shake of his head, "right now I feel lousy."