This was to have been one of the glamor matchups of the 1980 soccer season: the defending Soccer Bowl champions against the NASL's new power, the team led by the incomparable Johan Cruyff.
Saturday at 11 p.m. (WTTG-TV-5) in Empire Stadium the Soccer Bowl champion Vancouver Whitecaps will take on Cruyff and the Washington Diplomats.
But the luster of the evening has been dimmed. Both teams enter the game with 14-14 records after seasons filled with controversy and internal bickering.
Today, the Whitecaps announced that Willie Johnston, 32, one of the key men in their march to the championship a year ago, has been sold -- at his request -- back to a team in England.
That is only the latest in a series of moves that has rocked this franchise. Last month, John Best, the club president and the man who built the team, resigned effective at the end of the season. Bob McNab, who began the season as coach, has been fired. Tony Waiters, who moved up from coach to general manager after guiding the club to the Soccer Bowl championship, is back on the sideline, coaching again.
Waiters has one goal: getting his team into the playoffs. In spite of their identical records, the Dips and Whitecaps are in very different situations in respect to the playoffs. The Diplomats are in Second place in the National Conference East with 134 points, virtually in the playoffs. The Whitecaps are third, behind Seattle and Los Angeles in the National West with 120 points. Eight teams will make the playoffs from the conference. Right now, Vancouver stands seventh, but is only two points ahead of Minnesota and four points ahead of Toronto.
That incentive, an expected crowd of close to 30,000 and Washington's miserable 3-11 road record would lead one to believe that the Dips' road woes will continue here in British Columbia.
Coach Gordon Bradley sees it differently. "We've corrected the defensive mistakes we made in Minnesota (a 5-1 loss)," he said today. "I can't see us having the same kind of horrendous luck we had there. I really think it will be a different story here."
Cruyff, who has been outstanding the last seven games, with five goals and nine assists, isn't quite as optimistic. "This is a good team," he said of Vancouver. "They are the kind of team that will do well in the playoffs. They are experienced and they are smart. They are better than Minnesota. We will have to be much better if we are to win."
The Whitecaps have a Dutchman of their own in Rudi Krol, acquired this spring. In 10 games Krol has been ineffective, not scoring a goal and recording just three assists. But Cruyff and Bradley still view him as a major threat along with leading scorer Trevor Whymark (14 goals, three assists) and Carl Valentine (eight goals, seven assists).
Now in their fifth season , the Whitecaps have been one of the NASL's success stories. They are third in the league, behind the Cosmos and Tampa Bay, in attendance this season, averaging 26,000 per game in spite of their problems on the field.
"If we make it into the playoffs I think we can make a run," Waiters said. "We've had our troubles this year but I think everyone in the league knows the talent is still there."
If Waiters sounds like Bradley, it's because the two have experienced similarly stormy, disappointing seasons. Few expected Saturday's match to be one of .500 teams struggling to nail down playoff spots.
The Dips beat Vancouver, 2-0, in RFK Stadium on June 25, with one of their best efforts of the season. . . . Overlooked because of the Whitecaps' problems scoring is the fact that Bruce Grobbelar has done an excellent job replacing Phil Parkes in goal with a 1.22 goals-against average and seven shutouts. . . . Vancouver lost Canadian midfielder Jerry Gray with a pulled hamstring muscle Wednesday. Krol may play midfield instead of striker as a result.