A number of players on the Washington Diplomats believe the team has little chance for success in the upcoming NASL playoffs, according to an informal survey taken during the last week.
"Last year we won a lot of close games on guts," said one player. "We haven't done that much this year. We win on our ability, or we lose. We don't win the tough ones. In the playoffs, you win the tough ones or you don't win."
Adding to the team's problems is its consistent inability to win on the road. "It's become psycholgical," said midfielder Thomas Rongen, following the 2-0 loss in Vancouver Saturday. "The minute we get behind, 1-0, there's a tendency for everyone to start thinking, 'Oh no, here we go again.'"
The Dips now are 3-12 on the road this season, 14-15 overall for 134 points, with three regular season contests left. Because Toronto also lost Saturday, the Diplomats moved closer to clinching second place in the National Conference East. They now need 12 points in their last three games to clinch the second spot.
Still, the specter of one close loss after another is haunting everyone in the organization. The players, who predicted a poor showing in the playoffs in a series of interviews over the last week, cite a number of reasons for that feeling.
Although they are getting along much better publicly and have come to like each other personally, Coach Gordon Bradley and superstar midfielder Johan Cruyff still cannot agree on the subject of the second-half tactics came up.
Dragan Radovich has done a solid job the last 11 games as a rookie starting goalkeeper. But he has no playoff experience. Bill Irwin, who has playoff experience, has not played since July 2 and was not having a good season before getting hurt.
Partly due to the Bradley-Cruyff situation, this is a divided team. Radovich and Rongen had a brief shoving match in Minnesota. A number of players resent what they see as Cruyff's undermining of Bradley's authority. Two important defensive players, Don Droege and Carmine Marcantonio, are unsigned.
Now it appears that the Diplomats will open the playoffs, as they did last year, against the Los Angeles Aztecs. The opener would be Wednesday, Aug. 27 in RFK Stadium, with the second game and a minigame (if necessary) in the Rose Bowl Aug. 31. The Aztecs, with Cruyff, eleminated the Dips a year ago.
Ironically, even though the team still is struggling on that road, Bradly and Cruyff finally agreed in their postgame analysis Saturday.
Sitting on opposite sides of a tiny visitor's locker room in Empire Stadium, they gave startlingly similar reasons for the 2-0 loss.
"We had a lot of chances to get even at 1-1, the second half," Bardley said. "We dominated them. We just didn't have any luck. "Of course in soccer you have to create your own luck. We haven't done that yet. But I still think we will."
Said Cruyff: "I feel better now than after some of our 3-1 wins in April. As long as you are creating chances tonight, we were in control in the second half. I feel much better when I see us playing like this."
Still, with only one road game left, Sunday in New Jersey against the Cosmos, the Diplomats need some sort of boost before they enter the playoffs."
"A win on the road is very important to us now," Bradly said. "We need a win in the regular season to make us believe we can win in the playoffs on the road."
Most team members seem to feel that even though this is a talented enough team to blow opponents away at times, it is a team that lacks the chemistry to win in difficult situations.
"The only time we seem able to come from behind is at RFK," said leading scorer Alan Green. "But at RFK we're always ahead. When we get on the road, we get behind, 1-0, and most of the time that seems to be it for us."
"You have to win when you're not at your best to make it to Soccer Bowl," defender Bob Iarusci said. "With this team, there seems to be no middle ground. Either we're great, or we lose. Rarely are we just good enough to win."
What's more, the Diplomats are not a good team when behind. They are 3-10 when the other team has scored first, 1-9 coming from behind on the road.
The Vancouver press was in a tizzy all weekend about rumors that Cruyff wants to join countryman Rudi Krol here next season. That is unlikely. Vancouver is too far removed from the focus of publicity to suit Cruyff. Besides, Empire Stadium has an artifical turf field and Cruyff hates the stuff.
John Carbray, former Washington general manager now in San Jose, makes no secret of the fact that he would be very interested in Sonny Askew and Bobby Stokes, both out of favor in Washington, if they became available during the offseason . . . All the Dips agreed that Vancouver goalie Bruce Grobbelaar put on the best performance they have seen all season in gaining his shutout . . . Rongen aggravted his achilles injury and had to leave the game in the second half. So did Tony Crescitelli, who pulled a thigh muscle while showing excellent speed in outrunning a defender for a loose ball. Neither injury is considered serious.