It was 1 a.m. The hotel bar was beginning to empty. In a corner, Gordon Bradley sat sipping a beer. His eyes said he was tired and ready for bed, his lips said, "I can't sleep."

It was day four, actually night four, of a five-day, two-city, five-airplane trip for the Washington Diplomats. There would be an important game the next night and even though Bradley was physically exhausted, his mind would not let him rest.

"I want this one badly," he said. "We've still got something to prove. I'm not ready for sleep yet. I still have things to think about."

And so Coach Gordon Bradley sat with Mike Lange, the Washington Diplomats' play-by-play man, and talked softly about a long season, one that has been especially frustrating on the road.

"I don't understand it," he said. "We should get better results but we don't. It's upsetting."

And so, while his players slept, Bradley sat up and talked in a hotel bar. Next to an empty hotel room, it didn't seem so bad.

The road.

To a young athlete the road leads everywhere, a path to a fantasy world come true.

But shortly after an athlete makes it to the pros, his view of the road changes. There is nothing romantic about airports, hotel lobbies and dingy stadium locker rooms. They all look the same. Most of the time they are all the sights an athlete sees.

On the road, the athlete is alone, in a sense. He is surrounded by teammates almost all the time, but he is away from his family and friends. No one goes home on the road. There is no one to take frustations out on. No one to cry to.

There is the telephone. It is a two-headed animal. One provides relief, the sound of a wife's or a girlfriend's voice. The other produces anger because that voice is so far away.

For the Diplomats, the road has been especially trying this year. The record on the field is 3-12. There have been few postgame celebrations. The cities where the team has won games -- Philadelphia, Rochester and Memphis -- are not the kind of towns for raucous celebrations.

And, because this has been a year filled with internal problems, the road can be an uncomfortable place. On the road, 20 men -- 16 players, two coaches, a trainer and a publicity man -- are thrown together. They travel as one. They have no choice, they must coexist.

"I hate it," Johan Cruyff said. "This is the reason I retired from soccer the first time. It will probably be the reason I retire from soccer the second time."

Once, the Diplomats were a team that loved the road. Not because they had any more success on the field, because they never have been a good road team. But in past years, they were younger, a team filled with single men and several married men who were less than committed to marriage. For many, the road was an adventure.

Most notable among these men were Paul Cannell, Jim Steele and Bob Stetler. All were extroverts. All loved to "socialize," as Cannell put it. Stetler was legendary for his popularity with women. Cannell was legendary for doing anything at any time, up to and including dancing on a bar. Steele was legendary for his capacity for beer.

Among them, they kept the Diplomats loose on the road.

"We spent so much time talking about what they were doing that we never worried about a game," said defender Bob Iarusci. "Now, we sit around, talk soccer and worry."

Almost every Diplomat has a Cannell, Steele or Stetler story. But the most famous Diplomat road stories concern Sonny Askew.

Askew came to the Diplomats in 1977, a 20-year-old innocent from Baltimore. He had a kind of naivete rarely seen in today's cynical professional athlete. The first time Askew was interviewed by a newspaper reporter, he stopped in the middle of answering a question and said, "Is it okay if I say hello to my grandmother?"

The first time Askew was scheduled to go on a road trip, an exhibition game to Richmond, he went to see Terry Hanson, then the assistant general manager, to tell him he couldn't make the trip.

"Why not?" asked Hanson, now ex-executive vice president of the Atlanta Chiefs.

"Well," Askew answered, a little embarrassed, "I haven't got any money."

Told the team would supply him with money, Askew still said he didn't think he could make the trip.

"Why not?" Hanson asked again.

"Well," said Askew, "I don't know anyone in Richmond. I haven't got any place to stay."

That is story one. Story two concerns last season's trip to Minnesota. Bradley called a team meeting for 8 p.m. to discuss the next night's game plan.

At 8:15 p.m., Askew walked into the room

"Sonny," Bradley said sternly, "you're late. The meeting was at 8."

"I'm sorry," Askew said, genuinely apologetic. "I thought the meeting was at 7:30."

Bradley laughed so hard he forgot to fine Askew.

Now, at the ripe old age of 23, Askew is a seasoned traveler. Like his older teammates, he takes the trips in stride. Like his older teammates, the road is a place where sleep is usually the only refuge from boredom.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Dips have just dropped a depressing 5-1 game to the Minnesota Kicks. They are disgusted by the result, angered by their inability to be the same team on the road that they are in RFK Stadium.

As always, they have broken up into small groups after returning to the hotel.

Iarusci, goalkeeper Bill Irwin and publicity man Jim Trecker sit in the hotel bar commiserating. Irwin is drinking beer and 7-Up.

At the bar, Don Droege, one of the team's few bachelors is talking to a girl with long dark hair. He is joined by Dragan Radovich, Cruyff and Wim Jansen. All are married, just observing.

Cruyff spends much of his time on the road making clear to women that he is not interested. He doesn't even return smiles. "Why give them the wrong idea?" he says.

The two men who probably work the hardest when the Diplomats are on the road are trainee Steve Hornor and Trecker. Unofficially, they are the traveling secretary and assistant traveling secretary.

Hornor makes all travel arrangements. Airplanes. Hotels. Transportation. If something goes wrong, he gets yelled at. If everything works, no one says anything.

Trecker, in addition to having to contact the local press to find out what they want, must help Hornor when he has a problem.

What does that mean?

In Atlanta earlier this season, it meant going back and scouring a highway in the middle of the night when the team arrived back at the hotel and found that somehow the uniform trunk had fallen off the bus.

From midnight until almost 2 a.m. Trecker and Hornor, armed only with flashlights, already exhausted and disgusted by a shootout loss, searched the highway. They never found the uniforms.

In Vancouver last week, the pair had another pleasant task. The Dips flew to Vancouver via Seattle. One problem: their luggage and equipment never made it off the plane in Seattle. When the luggage finally arrived, they rented a van and drove to the airport.

First, there was an argument with customs officials who insisted the luggage could be released to no one but their owners. Finally convinced, they insisted on a spot check of several pieces of luggage.

Once that was accomplished, Trecker and Hornor had to load all the luggage and equipment on the truck. It was well after midnight when they finally arrived back at the hotel.

"Vice president of communications, my butt," Trecker snarled the next day, referring to his official title with the organization, which would seemingly exempt him from playing moving man.

"Why," he added, "do I put up with this?"

Each of the Diplomats asks that question each night as he stares across the room at his roommate. The trips last from two days to two weeks this season and none of them is fun. The Diplomat who likes traveling least is Tommy O'Hara, who is afraid of flying.

One of Hornor's jobs each trip is to make sure O'Hara has the last seat in the rear of the airplane. O'Hara also is the only member of the team Hornor supplies with pills to calm his nerves before each flight.

As the team stepped off the plane in Washington after its first trip of the season to Tampa Bay, O'Hara looked around, smiled and said, "Two flights down, 30 to go."

To Tommy O'Hara the road is one airplane after another. He hates it. His teammates may not be afraid to fly but they share the same feelings about travel.

"The only good thing about a road trip," Cruyff said, Is coming home. The bad thing is there's always another one after that."