If the Washington Diplomats are to avoid a repeat of last year's first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Aztecs, they must accelerate the tempo early and force the Aztecs to play a wide-open brand of soccer.
If the Aztecs are allowed to play their brand of disciplined, tactical soccer, they can offset Washington's superior quickness and -- at least to some extent -- negate the unmatachable skills of Johan Cruyff. If they do that, Washington will lose.
The fact that Alan Green will probably not play in the series is a major blow for Washington. For the past two seasons he has been the one constant in the Diplomat offense: give Green a chance and he will put the ball in the net.
The emergence of Tony Crescitelli (15 goals) as a goal scoring threat will offset Green's loss somewhat, but part of the reason for Crescitelli's success has been defenders doubling up on Green. Now, Crescitelli may face double coverage.
In the end, though, the deciding factor in this series -- as it was last year -- will be Cruyff. As an Aztec last season he was allowed by the Diplomats to control the flow of the games, won 3-1 and 4.3 by the Aztecs. He must have that control at midfield; he must, in fact, dominate, if the Dips are to win.
The Aztecs play excellent defense. They gave up just 51 goals in running up a 20-12 record, a mark that surprised many in the league who thought they would plunge when Cruyff departed for Washington.
But Rinus Michels has not gained a reputation as one of the world's top coaches for nothing. He has built his team around a superb defense, led by the goalkeeping of Mexican Alfredo Ahnielo -- 1.20 goals-against average, seven shutouts.
"They are very disciplined, especially at the back," Cruyff said. "They give nothing away. We won't get any easy goals. If we make silly mistakes, we lose."
The Dips (17-15) have been an inconsistent team defensively all season. At times they have been superb, completely blunting opponents. At other times they have given away gift goals, bad goals.
With Luis Fernando (28 goals, four assists) and 6-3 Dutchman Leo Van Veen on the Los Angeles front line, the Dips cannot afford to give up any soft goals. Nick Mijatovic, still hobbling with a back problem, will have the job of stopping the seemingly unstoppable Fernando.Don Droege will mark Van Veen in what could be the key matchup for the Diplomats.
In any playoff series, hockey or soccer, goalkeeping is crucial. Neither goalkeeper has ever played in a NASL playoff game. Anhielo has the advantage of having been the Aztecs' starter all season. Dragan Radovich started the Dips' last 15 games and made great strides. One encouraging thing for the Dips: in the game where he was most nervous, against the Cosmes in front of family and friends in New Jersey, Radovich played his best game of the season.
The Dips do not want 1-0 games to decide this series. Los Angles has played for the 1-0 result almost all season. The Dips, who gave up 11 more goals, must play wide open soccer to be successful.
They must get ahead at home or Los Angeles will go into a defensive shell.
They must win at home to have a chance to advance. Because of their injuries, they must get optimum play from all their starters. But more than anything, they MUST put their fortunes in the hands -- actually on the feet -- of Cruyff.
He was the difference between these two teams last year. He should be the difference again. That is why he's being paid $500,000 a year.
The other first round series look like this: The Cosmos (24-8) had trouble with Tulsa (15-17) a year ago and may have a difficult match on the narrow, AstroTurf Skelly Stadium field this time around. But in Giants Stadium, they will win easily and advance.
Seattle (25-7) was 21-2 before losing five of its last nine to drop behind the Cosmos in points and set up a match with defending Soccer Bowl champion Vancouver (16-16). The Whitecaps were terrible early, then came on. This is a goalkeepers' series, Seattle's Jack Brand against Vancouver's bruce Grobbelaar. Vancouver's been there before. An upset.
The last National Conference series matches Dallas (18-14) against Minnesota (16-16). Both teams came on at the end of the year. Minnesota has come on stronger and should overcome the home field advantage.
The American Conference point leader, Chicage (21-11), opens against San Diego (16-16). No contest. The Sting can play with anyone, the Sockers probably donht belong in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay (19-13) has been up and down all year but has been in the Soccer Bowl two years in a row. The Rowdies' experience should be too much for New England (18-14), although goalie Kevin Keelan could make the Tea Men a dark horse possibility.
Edmonton (17-15) was the surprise of the league in winning the American Conference West. The main reason: Coach Timo Liekoski, stolen from Houston after he led the Hurricane to a 22-8 mark in 1979. Without Liekoski, Houston was 14-18 and will disappear quickly against Edmonton.
Fort Lauderdale (18-14) has as much talent as anyone in the league but has been inconsistent. The Striker opponent, California (15-17), has been consistently mediocre. The Surf doesn't belong in the playoffs. It won't be in them long.