The Washington Diplomats will play the most important game in their seven-year history Sunday. It probably could not come at a worse time.

From the day they purchased Johan Cruyff from the Los Angeles Aztecs three months ago, Washington officials have pointed to their RFK Stadium confrontation Sunday with the Cosmos as the day the franchise truly would arrive.

They pictured a crowd of 40,000 or more, a battle for first place and, most important, a Washington victory over the North American kings of soccer.

Now it appears none of those three things may come about. This certainly is no battle for first place. The Diplomats are 28 points away from the division-leading Cosmos in the National Conference East. They are five points from the last-place Rochester Lancers and sinking fast.

With the Dips 3-6 coming into the game with a three-game losing streak, a crowd of 30,000 would seem much more realistic. The team has drawn more than 30,000 twice in the history, both times games against the Pele-led Cosmos.

And what about a victory? Right now, that doesn't seem too likely either.

The Diplomats are a team in flux. The presence of Cruyff has been divisive and distracting. Cruyff is both brilliant and dogmatic. When things are not done his way he says so. That does not create harmony within a team.

The team also is lacking two key players: a striker who can score in the air and a midfield enforcer, someone to protect Cruyff and Juan Jose Lozano when they are attacked by enforcers such as Atlanta's Branko Radovic. A championship team needs muscle as well as speed and skill. Except on the back line, the Dips are sorely lacking muscle.

Ironically, two players eliminated by management this year because of their off-field activities could fill both holes. Paul Cannell, exiled to Memphis, became Washington's all-time leading scorer by getting goals with his head. It was his inability to use his head off the field that got him in trouble with management.

Cannell's sidekick and best friend, Jim Steele, was the team's midfield enforcer. In fact, Cruyff called him one of the dirtiest players he had ever seen last year. Now, Steele sits in Sonny Werblin's box at home games recovering from a knee injury, waiting to be traded.

No one in the organization is trying to soft-pedal the importance of the game. They know that another loss will just about clinch the title for the Cosmos with the season less than one-third over.

"I think in the life of any young franchise there comes a time when one game becomes the game that makes your franchise," General Manager Andy Dolich said. "I'm not going to say it can break your franchise because you hope there will be other chances.

"But this is the kind of game that can be a catalyst. We haven't had our really big win yet with this team. We need that. We need to win a big game against a great team in front of a lot of people. This is that chance."

The game may also be something of a turning point in the minds of the Madison Square Garden management. Certainly, it is not going to settle for mediocrity after spending $4 million to acquire Cruyff, Lozano and Wim Jansen in the offseason. Bradley and Dolich already have said that if a quick reversal does not come about, players' heads are likely to roll.

Additionally, these must be nervous times for Bradley. Werblin is aware of the contributions he has made to American soccer on and off the field, both here and in New York, since he arrived in this country 14 years ago.

But Werblin also is a businessman who reports to a board of directors. He will have to answer for a team that lost more than $1 million last year, was the beneficiary of a huge financial investment this year, and still is losing games and huge sums of money.

Bradley's record against the Cosmos the last two seasons is 0-4. Last year, both losses came in shootouts. They still were losses. Bradley, for his own protection, needs to beat the Cosmos and needs to turn the team around -- quickly.

"This is a 32-game season," Bradley said. "When it's over, we're going to look back and say, 'We had a bad start, but we certainly came back well from it.' This team is going to be a success. I know it."

Bradley is the kind of man who could give Dale Carnegie lessons in charm. He is a proven coach whose contributions to the growth of American soccer cannot be measured in wins and losses.

But wins and losses, dollars and cents are the bottom line at Gulf and Western. That means Bradley must start winning very soon.

It also means that if the Diplomats lose Sunday, then revert back to drawing crowds of 12,000 (a possibility if the team continues to lose), Madison Square Garden might either sell or move the franchise at the end of this season.

Dolich is only partially correct in his assessment of the significance of this game. He is right when he says the Dips have everything to gain from it. But they also have much to lose.