What has gone right with the Washington Diplomats?
A wounded, struggling, divided 8-13 team three weeks ago, facing the possibility of missing the virtually unmissable NASL playoffs, the Dips must be labeled today as a legitimate Soccer Bowl threat when the playoffs begin in three weeks.
"It's amazing what a difference a few weeks makes," said defender Bob Iarusci. "Before, everything we did was wrong. Now, everything we do is right."
There are several reasons why this team has turned tiger.
First, there is Johan Cruyff. Unhappy, whiny, uncooperative and hobbled the first half of the season, he has earned his $500,000-plus salary the last six games. He scored what many present called the greatest goal they had ever seen to start the Dips to their 3-2 win over Seattle, the victory that started the six-game winning streak. Since then he has been like a man from another planet sent to earth with special skills in soccer.
"He's just magic," said Tony Crescitelli. "It's so much easier to play when you know if you make a run toward the goal the ball is going to end up on your foot."
Cruyff seems happier now than he has been all season. He and Coach Gordon Bradley have patched up their differences, at least for the moment, and the Dutchman is letting his play do the talking. That wasn't the case earlier when his mouth did the talking and much of the playing.
Cruyff is the catalyst, the lynchpin. But several other players have had crucial roles in the turnaround.
Least noticed and least appreciated is Cruyff's best friend and shadow, Wim Jansen. Bradley moved him from midfield to sweeper for the Seattle game and the move has worked wonders.
At midfield, Jansen, 33, frequently tired and was hurt often. Since moving to the back he has been brilliant. He is always exactly where he should be. He does not have to run as much and he has given the back four of himself, Iarusci, Don Droege and Nick Mijatovic a brand of leadership and match cool lacking before. It is no coincidence that Washington's opponents have scored only seven goals in the six games that Jansen has been at sweeper. h
Directly connected to that has been the play of Dragon Radovich in goal. Forced into the lineup by Bill Irwin's shoulder injury nine games ago, Radovich has played so well that Bradley won't take him out.
His first NASL shutout in Saturday night's 6-0 win over the Toronto Blizzard was testimony to his rapid improvement and developing self-confidence. It was also testimony to just how well the defense has been playing that Radovich faced a club-record-low five shots in Wednesday's 5-1 win over Tulsa.
And while Cruyff has run the offense beautifully at midfield, he has received ample help from a countryman, newly acquired Thomas Rongen. Rongen, 23, was given up by Los Angeles Aztec Coach Rinus Michels because the autocratic coach didn't approve of Rongen's off-field life style.
Bradley isn't interested in what Rongen does after games as long as he continues to perform with the reckless aggressiveness he has shown thus far. If the Dips have lacked something at midfield this year it has been the player who will consistently sacrifice his body to get the ball. Rongen has provided that.
Then there is Crescitelli, the bearded wonder. He is a wonder in that he looks more like a wrestler than a soccer player, yet, as one observer noted, "All he does is score goals." He has 11 in 13 games as a starter, including the winner in Memphis two weeks ago, a key road win for the club.
Crescitelli credits Cruyff and Alan Green for his success. "It takes four or five men to cover those guys," he said. "That means I must be open." f
Conversely, Crescitelli's emergence as a threat has helped Green.Earlier in the season Green was the only player on the team, it seemed, capable of putting the ball in the net. Opposing defenses double- and triple-teamed him and tried to bully him. Jeff Durgan of the Cosmos used the knock-him-flat-everytime-he-touches-the-ball method of defense on Green. Others followed suit.
Now, with Crescitelli scoring and Cruyff creating, it is hard for defenses to double up on Green. One on one he is going to make most defenders look silly. That's why he has 23 goals in 26 games.
While everyone on the team has been luxuriating in the winning streak, all have pointed out over and over, "We still have to do it on the road."
Five of the six victories on the streak have been in RFK Stadium. The one exception was a heartening 2-1 win in Memphis. Now, though, the Diplomats face road games at Minnesota Wednesday, Vancouver Saturday and New Jersey (Cosmos) on Aug. 17. Along with Tampa Bay, these are the hardest places for a visiting team to win in the NASL.
One bonus, however: Saturday Juan-Jose Lozano, the oft-injured, sometimes wondrous, Spanish midfielder, returned to the lineup after almost two months on the injured list. If he can play up to form on the road trip, the Dips should be very competitive.
Those five words say it. With a 14-13 record, the Diplomats have all but wrapped up second place in the NASL National Conference East with five games left. They have proven that, at home, they are as good as any team in the league.What they do not yet know is whether they can be the perfectly meshed machine on the road (3-10) that they are at home.