The Washington Diplomats will end their most turbulent regular season today at 2:30 p.m. with a match against the one team in the league hotter than the Dips, the Minnesota Kicks.
Both teams were pathetic the first three months of the season, the Kicks reaching their nadir July 2 with a 6-13 record, the Dips 10 days later at 8-13.
At that point, it looked as if both would be packing their bags after today's finale.
But since then, the Kicks have won 10 of 12, including a 5-1 rout of the Dips in Minnesota, while Washington has won eight of 10. Both teams enter the game with 16-15 records and playoff berths clinched. Still, the game has meaning.
The Dips have 150 points in the standings to Minnesota's 145. A Washington victory would wrap up the second-best second-place record in the National Conference for the Dips and send them against the Los Angeles Aztecs in the first round of the playoffs.
A Minnesota victory would give the Kicks the second-best record among National Conference second-place teams and send the Dips against Dallas in the playoff opener here Wednesday. Additionally, if these teams meet in a later playoff round, today's winner would have home field advantage.
"It would take some strange things to happen for us not to play Los Angeles first," Washington Coach Gordon Bradley said. "I think we'd like to play them first. They beat us in the playoffs last year and it's Johan's (Cruyff) old team and I think he would like to play them, too."
The Aztecs and Diplomats have played five times the last two seasons. The Dips won the first meeting and Los Angeles the next four, including a 2-1 overtime victory this season in the Rose Bowl. The Dips won their only meeting with Dallas this season, 4-2, at RFK in April but never have won a game in Texas.
Today's match is something of a crusade for the Dips, who were embarrassed by the team's first meeting.
"We should have won that night," defender Bob Iarusci said. "How many times do you outshoot a team 33-13 and get beat 5-1? It shouldn't have happened, it was embarrassing."
The result that night in Bloomington, which broke a six-game Washington winning streak, angered Bradley perhaps more than any other loss all season. He stomped around the locker room that night, calling the outcome an injustice and demanding a rematch. Today, he gets his wish.
The Kicks are led in scoring by the smooth South African, Ace Ntsoelengoe, who has 13 goals and 17 assists for 43 points. Striker Ricardo Alonso, who took over for the slump-ridden Alan Willey, has 16 goals -- nine of them during Minnesota's current five-game winning streak.
Ron Futcher, who scored four goals against Washington, has a total of 12 although he sat out the Kicks' last game on a one-game league suspension. Willey played in his place and scored two goals -- his first since June. He will continue on the bench, however.
Even though the Kicks scored five goals in the first match, it was the defense, specifically goalie Tino Lettieri, who left the Dips shaking their heads.
The young Canadian made several brilliant saves in the first half while the game was in doubt, including one on Thomas Rongen -- a sliding kick save -- which none of the Diplomats could believe.
"He played very well that night," Alan Green said. "But we're the ones who have the responsibility of putting the ball in the net. That's our job this time round."
The Dips have had good goalkeeping lately from Dragan Radovich. The 24-year-old was beaten only by a penalty kick against the Cosmos and on a perfect 25-yard blast with 1:30 left in the New England game -- a goal that did nothing to alter the final outcome but denied Radovich his second shutout.
This will not be a typical match to end the season, to play out the string. Both clubs have something at stake in terms of postseason play and the Dips want revenge and momentum going into the playoffs.
"It should be an intense match," Iarusci said. "I guarantee we'll be intense. Maybe if we're lucky, they won't be."
The Dips are hoping for a crowd of 20,000 today if good weather produces a decent walkup sale . . . Rongen, out with a badly sprained ankle, is hoping to play Wednesday.
Juan Jose Lozano, still bothered by a calf contusion, has been taken off the roster and probably is through for the season unless the Dips reach the Soccer Bowl.