Coach Gordon Bradley has been saying it all season: "Sooner or later, the breaks are going to start going our way. They have to."

Last night, they did for the Diplomats.

Aided by referee David Syme's decision to disallow a Tampa Bay goal, the Dips won their third straight game, 2-1 over the Rowdies in front of 18,375 at RFK Stadium.

The Diplomats got their goals from Johan Cruyff on a penalty kick in the first half -- after Alan Green had been fouled -- and from Bob Iarusci on a crossing pass that hit two Rowdies and ended up in the net.

The Rowdies netted a penalty kick by Steve Wegerie with less than three minutes left in the game. But it was the Tampa Bay goal that didn't count that caused most of the post-game conversation.

It happened in the game's 79th minute. The Dips had dominated almost the entire game and looked ready to cruise to a shutout.

But the Rowdies' Mike Connell worked loose long enough to feed a pass to Peter Anderson, who took one quick step and beat Washington goalie Dragan Radovich from eight yards out. While the Rowdies celebrated, Wim Jansen, who played a superb game at the sweeper spot for Washington, charged linesman Eddie Bellion.

Jansen screamed for an offside ruling and Bellion called referee Syme over. The two men consulted for about a minute, then Syme waved off the goal.

Now it was the Rowdies' turn to charge the officials. All it brought them was a yellow card for midfielder Wes McLeod.

At the crux of the controversy was Bellion's failure to raise his flag, standard procedure when a linesman wants to indicate an infraction to the referee.

Not so, said Syme.

"Our method of communication in a situation where there is an offsides involving a goal is for the linesman to stand at attention to indicate to me there was an infraction," he said. "I went over to talk to the linesman in order to determine exactly what happened."

According to Tampa Coach Gordon Jago, what happened was robbery. When the game ended, Jago chased after Syme and exchanged angry words with him.

"It was disgraceful," the normally low-key coach said. "That's the first time I've ever lost my temper with a referee in my life. I fully expected a red card for what I said to him. If he had any guts he would have given me one."

The fact that Syme called a questionable penalty kick on the Dips Don Droege for taking down Tampa Bay's Washington Olivera, giving Wegerle his goal at 87:13, didn't calm Jago at all.

"The penalty was cheap," he said. "That's a payback and I don't like that at all."

NASL Commissioner Phil Woonam, who was here the last time such a controversy arose in a Diplomats-Cosmos game, consulted with Syme before the pool reporter was allowed in the oficials' dressing room. Then he pronounced the standing at attention instead of waving the flag as "standard procedure."

"We've been doing it that way after a goal all year," he said. "That way the crowd doesn't get all excited by seeing a flag."

Even Bradley, beneficiary of the call, appeared confused. "I always thought they would just raise a flag," he said.

The no-goal controversy put something of a damper on an otherwise delightful occasion for the Diplomats. The evening was cool and gorgeous, the crowd was enthusiastic from the start and the home side played another excellent game against a good team. The Dips are now 11-13 for 106 points this season, one more than Toronto for second place in the National Conference East. Tampa Bay, dropping into second place in the American Conference East, is 14-12 for 125 points.

"We're on the right road," Bradley said. "We still have a long way to go but we're playing well now. If we ever get the whole team healthy, we'll be quite formidable."

As long as the Dips can keep Cruyff healthy and happy, they should be formidable. Again last night he was the centerpiece in the offense, controlling the flow of the game, setting up teammates again and again.

"Only 20 minutes tonight we weren't organized," he said. "It keeps getting better.I'm encouraged."

It was Green who created the first goal. Taking a pass from Cruyff, he faked young American Perry Van Der Beck almost out of his green and white jersey and went in on goalie Winston DuBose all alone on the left side of the penalty box. Defender Connell, peeling back, could do nothing but trip Green for an obvious penalty.

Cruyff quickly converted for his sixth goal of the season at 6:01 sending DuBose sprawling to his right, then easily beating him to his right.

That lead held up throughout the half even though both teams played very creatively at midfield and had chances to score. It wasn't until the 57th minute that the score changed and then as a result of a fluke.

Cruyff, who kept waving Iarusci into the offense all night, sent the Canadian down the right side with a twisting pass.

"It was on my outside and spinning away," Iarusci said, "I had to knock it down, stop it, then look for a pass. Obviously I was looking for a cross, I'd be crazy to say I wasn't. But the ball hit the defender and twisted toward the goal. I said three 'Hail Marys' and it went in." It just ticked the surprised DuBose's hand and caught the left corner at 56:24 for Iarusci's fourth goal of the season.

"We made it hard for ourselves the last few minutes," Iarusci said. "But we haven't done anything the easy way all season. We're getting better, though."

An luckier.