Two weeks ago, the fans of the Vancouver Whitecaps were calling their Soccer Bowl darlings the "Vanishing Whitecaps."

One of the NASL's more glamorous franchises, the Whitecaps had accomplished their owners' dreams, going from fifth in their division six years ago to fourth, third, second, first and the National Conference semifinals to Soccer Bowl champs. Everything Vancouver touched turned to gold.

As the price of gold diminished this year, so did the Whitecaps victories.

"We were struggling as a team," said Vancouver winger Carl Valentine. "Last year, our team effort took us to the Soccer Bowl. Early this year, we just didn't have it.New players, old players squabbling over contracts, a lot of little things played a part in our bad start."

Vancouver was plodding along with a 5-8 mark and was locked in a two-way battle with Portland for last place in the division. But then the magic reappeared.

The Whitecaps were undefeated in the Trans-Atlantic Cup four-team exhibition series, with a win over Manchester United and ties with the Cosmos and Roma of Italy. Then the man with the "magic touch," Tony Waiters, left his general manager's office to resume coaching duties. Since he took over, Vancouver has won four straight games.

"I don't have any magic touch. The players just began working harder," said Waiters, who coached the team for three seasons before turning it over to assistant coach Bob McNab at the beginning of the year and assuming GM duties. "I made some marginal changes, if any. I'm no big motivator and I don't have any big secrets."

Thus, Vancouver will be its old feisty, defensive-oriented self when it invades RFK Stadium tonight at 8 to play the Washington Diplomats.

"We sort of started off like Washington. People expected a lot out of them just as people expected us to be even better than last year," said Waiters. "Washington has a very taleted team and it should be a tough game."

The Dips have fashioned a modest two-game winning streak to improve their record to 6-9. Their 5-4 win over San Jose Sunday turned into a nail-biter and left Dip fans wondering where the defense went.

"We got ahead, 4-0, and lost our concentration," said Washington Coach Gordon Bradley, who was disturbed over his team's second-half play. "A lot of our letdown was mental. I don't plan to make any changes defensively but I can't blame everything on the defenders. The midfielders have to help out, too."

When the Whitecaps (9-8) are on their game, they can be devastating. Valentine, who scored a hat trick (three goals) and assisted on the fourth goal in Vancouver's 4-2 win over Edmonton Sunday, combines with exciting Trevor Whymark (seven goals) and 6-foot-2, 200-pound Ray Hankin to give the defending champions one of the best front lines in the league.

Bruce Gobbelaar returned from a goalkeeping stint in England (on the advice of Waiters) and took over the No. 1 job 10 games ago. He had five shutouts and has allowed only nine goals while recording 45 saves.

Gobbelaar may be a busy fellow tonight because the Dips reeled off a season-high 33 shots Sunday and got two goals from Alan Green, who now has 13 for the year, and Tony Crescitelli, who was getting his first start.

Bradley may have to make another lineup change. Both Johan Cruyff and Sakib Viteskic, who played very well Sunday, reinjured legs and are listed as questionable for tonight.

Cruyff, who scored his first goal as a Diplomat and added an assist, felt a slight twinge in his right thigh and left the game midway in the first half. Viteskic has a slightly pulled hamstring.

"I'm hoping both can play," said Bradley. "We won't know until game time. We are on a good streak right now and I feel confident."