After 23 games and four months, the Washington Diplomats have reached the crossroads of their most traumatic season.
They will begin a four-game home stand tonight at 8 in RFK Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a solid team that has struggled lately.
After tonight, the Dips (10-13) will play home games against divisional rivals Toronto and Rochester. Riding a two-game winning streak, they have a chance to all but wrap up second place in the NASL National Conference East and, perhaps more important, gain some momentum going into the playoffs.
"When we have Johan in the lineup we're a very good team," said Coach Gordon Bradley, referring to the return of midfielder Johan Cruyff. "I think it's easy to see the difference he makes out there."
It is so easy to see that even as crude a measure as statistics tell the story well. In the Diplomats' last 10 games, they have won six. Cryuff did not play in two of the four losses and left a third at halftime with the score tied 1-1. With Cruyff in the line up, the Dips have outscored opponents, 21-10. With cruyff out of the lineup -- for two full games and two half-games -- they have been outscored, 8-1.
Since he said publicly that he was going to "stop organizing and start scoring," a month ago, the 33-year-old Dutchman has had four goals and six assists in 5 1/2 games. He has been superb.
"The team is doing better now," Cruyff said. "The other players are losing the ball less, we are better organized. We still have a long way to go, but finally I can see progress."
On May 11, the Dips suffered their most humiliating loss of the season, 4-2 at home to a Portland team that had scored three goals in five games prior to playing Washington. That may have been a turning point of the season.
At that point, Cruyff and Bradley were virtually at each other's throat. At the insistence of Sonny Werblin, they held peace talks that week and reached a compromise: Cruyff would play the middle of the field as Bradley wanted and Bradley would start a more defensive-oriented lineup.
Since then, the Dips have slowly started to come together. The rash of injuries on a two-week road trip set them back, but now they appear to be back on the right track. Cruyff and Bradley aren't exactly best friends yet, but they are communicating and, at least for the moment, appear to have found a middle ground.
To take the first step, the Dips will have to beat a Tampa Bay team that has been almost as inconsistent as they are. The Rowdies are 14-11, tied for first place in the American Conference East. They beat the Dips, 3-2, in a tie breaker in the season opener but have not won here since 1977.
Their leading scorer is South African Neill Roberts with eight goals and seven assists. Oscar Fabbiani, last year's NASL scoring champ who has been out much of the year, is next with 10 goals, one assist. But the Rowdies' two most dangerous players may be midfielders Steve Wegerle and Jan Van Der Veen. They make the offense go.
They are to the Rowdies what Cruyff is to the Diplomats.
The walking wounded, Cruyff, Alan Green and Wim Jansen, will all start tonight . . . Joe Horvath and Juan Jose Lozana are still weeks away. Ken Mokgojoa has resumed training.