Sometimes good things come wrapped in less-than-pretty packages. Ask the Washington Diplomats.

"It reminded me of a hockey game," Coach Gordon Bradley said, exhausted after his team's draining, brutal 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Aztecs last night in front of 20,231 in RFK Stadium. It was Washington's first playoff victory ever.

The teams play again Saturday night in Los Angeles. Should the Diplomats win, they would advance to the second round. Should Los Angeles win, the series would be decided by a 30-minute minigame.

For 90 minutes last night the Diplomats and Aztecs took turns knocking each other flat. Referee Gino D'Ippolito handed out four yellow cards, but he could have charged players on either side with attempted assault.

The only goal of the humid evening came as a direct result of the game's first yellow card. The caution went to Los Angeles goalie Alfredo anhielo after he and Tony Crescitelli had collided at 22:50.

Cresctielli had chased a long pass into the box. Anhielo came out and the two collided. Both went down, dazed.

D'Ippolito called an obstruction foul on Anhielo and awarded the Dips an indirect free kick, 10 ten yards from the Aztec net.

"The referee saw it as a foul," Anhielo said through an interpreter. "It was a bad call. I asked him why. He (Crescitelli) made contact after I had the ball."

"We just collided," Crescitelli said. "I didn't really think it was a foul on either one of us, we were both just going for the ball. The next thing I knew I was down on the ground in pain."

Crescitelli had an ugly bruise on his chest, a present from Anhielo's cleats.

Off the free kick, Johan Cruyff, pointing in 100 different directions, acted as if he were going to slide the ball to Mario Benito Luna, who was standing next to him. Instead, he flipped a pass to Bobby Stokes, cutting into the top of the box.

Scoreless throughout the regular season, Stokes charged in and smashed an 18-yard shot past Anhielo's left side at 22:53.

Cryuff was so pleased with his teamates he pronounced the performance "Very good."

"It was a good goal. He made a good shot. I just gave him the pass," Cryuff said, shrugging.

If Stokes was pleased to score his first goal when it counted most, he wasn't saying so. Removed from the game with 15 minutes left, he dressed and left the locker room before the game was over.

"I'm very glad for Bobby," Bradley said. "He played very well while he was in. I only took him out because he tired badly towards the end."

Both teams used all three of their substitutes in the second half to fight the heat. The Diplomats, who learned yesterday that leading scorer Alan Green will be in a knee split until Monday, dug deep into their reserves for help.

They got it. Luna playing in Green's place, threatened to score on several occasions. Don Droege did a good job marking 6-foot-3 Leo Van Veen in the second half when Los Angeles pushed up and applied the pressure. vBarney Boyce played well in Stokes' place the last 15 minutes and Kenneth Mokgojoa, playing for the first time since June 7, had several chances when Crescitelli's pulled leg muscle force him out early.

In all, though, this was a night for the Washington defense to shine: Nick Mijatovic, staying with Luis Fernando for 57 minutes until his aching back forced him out; Wim Jansen, all over the field at his sweeper spot; Tommy O'Hara, never out of position and Bob Iarusci, steady as always.

But the big hero was the man they were protecting: goalie Dragan Radovich. The 24-year-old American earned his second NASL shutout. Throughout the second half, with the Aztecs applying pressure, he came up with one big save after another.

"I was nervous going in," Radovich said. "It was my first playoff game ever and I knew we needed to win at home. Right from the start I felt good, though. The minute the first ball hit my hand I just felt like I could stop anything. I didn't think they could beat me."

They couldn't.

It wasn't for lack of trying. Five minutes into the second half, Fernando, the brilliant striker who had 28 goals for the Aztecs this season, broke loose and fired a 22-yard bullet at Radovich, who dove to his right and smothered the ball.

"That was the toughest shot of the night," Radovich said. "He shoots a very heavy shot. I thought for a second I was in trouble."

Radovich was under fire throughout the second half. The Aztecs' other great chance came with just 3:30 left, when they had three consecutive shots from in front. Two were blocked by the defense and the third, off the foot of Mihalji Keri, Radovich smothered.

That save not only preserved the victory by probably saved D'Ippolito's life. Two minutes earlier, Luna had been sent into the box on a perfect pass from Cruyff. Anhielo came out and slammed into him. There was no call, as Luna staggered around Anhielo and shot wide with the net open.

Bradley was still storming after the game about the non-call and had to be reminded that his team had won before he calmed down. Madison Square Garden Chairman Sonny Werblin, after complaining to Commissioner Phil Woosnam, said, "That was the lousiest officiating I've seen my entire life."

But D'Ippolito was not the story last night. The story last night was the Diplomats, a battered team, standing up to a team that came in healthy and looking for physcial contact.

"Earlier in the year I don't know if we would have stood up to this kind of game," Bradley said. "Tonight, I felt like our players just decided that they weren't going to lose."

Now, it is on to Pasadena for a chance to move into the second round for the first time.

"There was nervousness tonight because we had never been through the first round," Cruyff said. "But we shook it off. We were organized. If we play like this Saturday, there is a good chance. Tonight, it was very good."

From Cruyff, that is extremely high praise. Last night, the Diplomats earned it. CAPTION:

Picture, Aztec defender Willem Suurbier employs a sure-fire strategy -- the stiff arm -- to keep Diplomat Johan Cruyff at bay. By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post