Three months ago, Tony Crescitelli was beginning to wonder if his NASL career was over, in only its second year and he only 23.

During a Washington Diplomats practice session, striker Crescitelli pulled the same thigh muscle in his left leg for the third time and the only cure was extended rest.

"It was either rest for a long time or never play again," Crescitelli remembered. "After it popped that third time, I thought it was the end of my world. It was really discouraging. I'd go out and just watch and had no idea when and if I'd play again."

The leg mended and Coach Gordon Bradley, looking for a spark from somewhere, decided to start Crescitelli against San Jose last Sunday. He scored two goals, notched another Wednesday against Vancouver, and will start again today when the Dips go for their fourth straight victory. Houston is the opponent in RFK Stadium at 2:30 p.m.

"It was just a gut feeling," Bradley said of his decision to make Crescitelli a starter. "I had envisioned playing Toney with Alan (Green) up front but Tony stayed injured so long. Both Bobby Stokes and Kenny Mokgojoa were struggling a bit and I would have tried Tony long ago. He was out eight weeks and had trained only two more before the San Jose game."

"So far, I'm pleased with what I've done but I still have to work much harder to stay in there," said Crescitelli, a 5-foot-11 native of Avellino, Italy, who is called "Movie Star" by his teammates.

"Adjusting to the offense hasn't been a problem. I work pretty good with Green, and Johan (Cruyff) helps me a lot on the field. Both have given me a lot of confidence."

As a team, Washington (7-9) has begun playing with a lot of confidence.

"We're doing much much better," Bradley said at yesterday's practice. "The small things have been ironed out. Our defense has played well the last 2 1/2 games -- I don't count that bad second half against San Jose -- and the offense has been more consistent. Toney has a lot to do with that."

Crescitelli led the nation in scoring as a collegian at North Adams State (Mass.) in 1975 (31 goals) and 1978 (45 goals). He was acquired by Washington in the second round of the 1979 draft and played in seven games, registering two assists.

He first injured his leg in preseason training camp and hurt it again against Tampa Bay in the opener. His 15-minute stint against the Rowdies was his only appearance before playing against San Jose.

A deceptive player, Crescitelli moves well without the ball, is strong, and good in the air. He also has a round build, and declines to give his true weight.

"Defenders see my gut and think I'm slow," he said. "Good; then they'll underestimate my speed."

Green, who has 13 goals and recently became Washington's all-time leading scorer, is delighted over Crescitelli's performances.

"If he continues to play this well, it'll take a lot of pressure off me," Green said. "For a while, I was the only one scoring and teams keyed on me. Now, they'll have to watch out for Tony C."

Houston (7-10) has been having problems defensively and gave up five goals to California Thursday night. Both the Hurricane and the Dips are among the worst defensive teams in the league, each having surrendered 33 goals.

"They have a couple of good players we must watch out for," Bradley said. "Eduardo Marasco is a good goal scorer and we have to keep an eye on him. But right now we're 7-9 going into the last half of the season and we only have to take care or ourselves. Every game is important now."

Bradley said he will go with the lineup that started Wednesday night. Cruyff will join Wim Jansen, Joe Horvath and Sakib Viteskic in the midfield.