Moving through perhaps the most traumatic season of his coaching career, Washington Diplomats' Coach Gordon Bradley has learned to take a cautious approach even when it appears his team is rolling.
A month ago, the Dips won four straight games, raising their record from 4-9 to 8-9. Bradley admitted he thought things had turned around. "If we can do well on this road trip, we'll be in good," he said then.
It never happened. The Dips went west and came home with four losses and three injuries to key players. Now, the Diplomats have won three in a row, their record is 11-13 and Johan Cruyff has finally become the leader and superstar he was expected to be.
Bradley isn't sending out for champagne yet though. "We're on the right road now," he said. "The play is getting better. But it's still a long way from where we want to be, from where we hope to be before the season is over."
The third consecutive win, 2-1, over the Tampa Bay Rowdies Wednesday, was dampened somewhat by a controversial offside call that cost the Rowdies a goal. But it did not negate the fact that Washington dominated the play for almost the entire 90 minutes against a good NASL team.
"We're starting to look like a team out there," said defender Bob Iarusci, who scored what proved to be the winning goal.
"Everyone is hustling and going after the ball. It isn't like earlier when six guys were running and four guys weren't."
Three factors appear to have keyed the turnaround: the return of an almost healthy Cruyff to the lineup, the acquisition of midfielder Thomas Rongen from Los Angeles and Bradley's decision to move Wim Jansen from midfield to sweeper.
Cruyff's return has spurred the winning streak. Of the seven goals the Dips have scored in the three wins, he has scored two and assisted on four others. He has been the catalyst.
Rongen has added a new dimension to the midfield with his diving, all-out style. He has gotten his uniform dirty more times in three games than some of the Dips have all season.
At 33, Jansen has tired in some games at midfield. But at sweeper, he has been in command, directing a defense that has been superb the last three games.
"I think sweeper may be Wim's best position," Bradley said. "He's given us stability and direction back there."
Cruyff, who has played with Jansen for years, is even happier with the move. "He's the most important man on this team," he said. "When Wim is in, this is a good team. Without him, no."
And without Cruyff, no.