The Washington Diplomats' season ended tonight when the Los Angeles Aztecs beat them twice, 2-1 in a shootout in the regulation game and 2-0 in the minigame on two goals by Dragan Simic.
Thus, the Dips were eliminated from the NASL playoffs after literally coming within a second of winning the regular game. Simic beat Washington goalie Dragan Radovich with a 10-yard header, then the Aztecs held on the last 20 minutes.
They advance to the National Conference semifinals after looking beaten several times in the first game of the 3 1/2 hour soccer marathon.
The overtime and the shootout of the regulation game were absolutely agonizing for the Diplomats.
Twice during the second overtime, they looked to have the series put away. First, Bob Iarusci had a perfectly teed up 10-yard shot from the right side which cleanly beat Alfredo Anhielo, only to hit the right post -- the third time the Dips hit wood during the game.
Then, as time was running out, Johan Cruyff sent a crossing pass from the left corner to Thomas Rongen. The Dutch midfielder, who scored the Dips' goal, headed the ball into the net.
But referee Warner Winsemann, without hesitation, ruled that the shot came after time had expired.
That sent it into shootout.
The Dips led throughout. They led 1-0 after the first round when Tommy O'Hara converted and Radovich stopped Luis Fernando. They were tied, 1-1, when Iarusci missed and Van Veen scored in the second round. They went, up 2-1, 3-2, and 4-3 in the next three rounds only to see the Aztecs pull even each time. The last time, in the fifth round, it was Annandale's Gary Etherington scoring to keep the Aztecs alive.
In the sixth round of overtime, Kenneth Mokgojoa missed for Washington and Javier Aguirre beat Radovich. The Dips argued that the shot was too late -- to no avail. The Aztecs had won the regulation game, 2-1, and the series was tied 1-1 and went into minigame.
If not for the fact that the stadium was less than 20 percent filled, the Rose Bowl at kickoff would have represented the perfect scene for a soccer lover: sun setting on the Pasadena Mountains, an idyllic California evening and two grim-faced teams, one of which would be eliminated before the night's end.
For the Aztec fans who did show up, the scoreless first half was filled with frustrations. The Aztecs had at least eight good chances to score, and put the ball past Radovich twice. But goals were disallowed on offside calls by linesman Bob Morgan.
Los Angeles controlled play throughout the half, dominating at midfield. The only times the Dips were dangerous were the rare occasions when they got the ball to Johan Cruyff with some operating room.
Cruyff had the game's first good scoring chance in the seventh minute when he dribbled past two defenders and beat Anhielo with a 10-yard shot from the right side. But Franz St. Lot kicked the ball off the line.
Two minutes later the Aztecs' Luis Fernando, muffled most of Wednesday night, sent a 22-yard blast at Radovich, who made a superb diving save going to his left, Fernando entered the game with 28 goals -- 11 more than accredited to the lineup Washington started after Coach Gordon Bradley's decision to play Bobby Stokes (one goal) over Tony Crescitelli (15).
Fernando and fellow striker Poli Garcia continued to work themselves loose throughout the half as the Diplomat defense was constantly under pressure because of the midfield's inability to control the ball.
The Dips did have chances.
Gary Darrell had a good opportunity 10 minutes into the game when Wim Jansen chipped a pass over the defense to him. In alone on Amhiels, Darrell tried to pop a shot over the goalie only to have the ball land on top of the net.
The Dips' other good chance came in the 31st minute. Jansen sent Cruyff and Mario Luna in on Anhialo and defender Mihalj Keri. Cruyff drew Keri and Anhiolo to him, then backfooted a gorgeous pass to Luna. The young Argentine missed a virtually empty net from 12 yards away.
The rest of the half was one Aztec rush after another. At the 15 minute mark Leo Van Veen had Chris Dangerfield open at the doorstep only to have Bob Iarusci kick the ball away at the last moment.
At the 16-minute mark Keri scored off a pass from Van Veen but was clearly offside. In the 22nd minute Garcia had an open 15-yard shot and fired wide. At 26:30, off a free kick created by a hard Jansen tackle on Fernando just outside the box, Fernando's left-footed blast was just knocked down by Radovich.
Garcia missed another wide-open shot in the 32nd minute, shooting wide right from seven yards; Van Veen was also wide with a 15-yard shot at 37 minutes. Van Veen sent Garcia in alone in the 39th minute only to see him chip the ball over the net.
Finally, in the last minute of the half, Fernando came open off a scramble and beat Radovich again. This time the offside called was much less clear. The fans booed loudly and the half ended.
The second halt started out as wide-open as the first. Cruyff almost put the Dips on top in the game's 50th minute. Using one of his patented double-juke moves he carried the ball into the left side of the penalty box and blasted a 16-yard shot. For the second time in the game he beat Arbielo. This time the ball slammed off the crossbar and the game remained even.
The Dips continued to have problems at midfield, compounded by sore ankle and Carmine Marcantonis's hamstring, forcing him to leave in the first half.
And, as has been the case almost all season, it did not appear that the Diplomats were about to win a game, especially one this important, by getting lucky.
Another frustration came when Rongen sent Tommy O'Hara in on the left side with a perfect pass. O'Hara beat Anhielo to the short side from 10 yards but didn't beat the post which stopped the shot cold. That came with 33 minutes left in regulation.
Just after the clock wound under 30 minutes, the Dips made their first bad mistake of the playoffs. Losing the ball at midfield -- again -- the entire team with the exception of Nick Mijatovie, did excellent imitations of statues while Alan Merrick sent a long pass for Fernando.
Realizing that Fernando was going to beat Mijatovie to the ball, Radovich came out almost to the 35-yard line to try and kick the ball away.
Fernando got to the ball first and went around Radovich. Before Mijatovic could scramble into position to try and block the ball he curled a 28-yard shot into the open net giving L.A. a 1-0 lead at 60:25.
Bradley tried to get some punch into the Washington lineup, bringing Crescitelli and Kenneth Mokgojoa on for Stokes and Luna with 15 minutes left.
The tactic worked. The Dips pushed up and kept applying pressure. Finally, off an O'Hara throw-in, they put the ball in the net. O'Hara tossed the ball into a crowd of players. Droege got up over everyone to head it into the air. Anhielo started for it but Rongen got there first. His header from six yards hit the net at 83:23 and it was 1-1.
Rongen's goal was doubly ironic -- he was acquired from Los Angeles on July 11, and it was Washington's second playoff goal -- of two -- scored by a player who did not score during the regular season.
Neither team threatened during the remainder of regulation and, for the third time in four Rose Bowl meetings the last two years, the teams went into overtime.