The Washington Diplomats have reached the critical point of their season.
Including today's 2:30 p.m. game against the slumping Fort Lauderdale Strikers at RFK Stadium, Washington will play five games in the next 14 days.
Following today's game before a likely crowd of 20,000 in the first home, game since drawing 53,351 in a shootout loss to the Cosmos two weeks ago, the Dips travel to Rochester Tuesday. They then return home for games against San Jose, Vancouver and Houston.
The Diplomats are hurting now. Recent losses of midfielders Juan Jose Lozano and Sonny Askew, both of whom suffered broken bones in the Dips' 5-2 loss in Chicago June 7, leave the Washington midfield in disarray.
Johan Cruyff still is hobbling with a pulled thigh muscle and probably will not play. Joe Horvath is sitting out today's game on suspension.
"It is like rebuilding the midfield all over again," moaned Diplomat Coach Gordon Bradley following yesterday's practice. "Some people you can lose and replace them and not feel it so much. Others you can't afford to lose. We have lost not one or two, but four key people."
As if the depleted midfield problem was not bad enough, Bradley had to take a long look at his usually reliable defense after last week's woeful performance in Chicago.
"In the second half we completely lost our composure in the back," said Bradley, referring to Chicago's four second-half goals. "We have to concentrate on defense and try to maintain that necessary balance."
If the Dips (4-8) fail to concentrate today, the Strikers, 9-6 and in first place in the American Conference Eastern Division, will burn them badly.
The Strikers have three potent scorers -- Ray Hudson, the American Conference scoring leader with eight goals and nine assists for 25 points, Gerd Mueller (six goals), and quick Teofilo Cubillas, who scores mostly in the clutch.
"We know what we're up against," Bradley said. "Mueller has been a goal scorer for 15 years. He has no tricks up his sleeve, he's just there when you need him. Cubillas is very clever and simply runs past you."
One of the more glamorous teams in the NASL, the Strikers have had their problems lately. A shaky defense and some internal squabbling between Coach Cor Van der Hart and Eduardo Bonvallet have been partly responsible for five losses in their last six games.
Bonvallet, a temperamental but extremely talented midfielder, has been benched.Another talented player, Francisco Marinho, obtained from the Cosmos this year, separated his shoulder in the Strikers' 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa Bay last week and is out for six weeks.
Bradley is hoping the eight-day break has been long enough for Gary Darrell and Sakib Viteskic to get comfortable working with wingers Alan Green, who has 10 goals, and Bobby Stokes, who will get the start over Ken Mokgojoa.
Both Viteskic and Darrell have played well in reserve roles this season.
The Dips have lost five of their last six games, two of them in shootouts. Fort Lauderdale defeated Washington, 2-1, in an earlier meeting.
"We should have never lost to them," said Dip defender Robert Iarusci, who has three goals in his last three games.
"We know we have people out but maybe the new blood will give us a big lift. We feel good about today's game, we know we can win it. The long break has helped us mentally. We won't get any breaks after today."