On the longest night of the longest Diplomat season, Washington's beleagured soccer players walked off the field at the Rose Bowl at 2:05 a.m. EDT in stunned silence.
The Diplomats reacted to their two losses to the Los Angeles Aztecs Saturday night by cursing the fates.
"If we had been destined to win the damn thing we would have gotten one of those shots in the net," said defender Bob Iarusci, who, like many of his teammates was close to tears. "Apparently we just weren't destined to win."
The 2-1 regulation loss, which the Aztecs won in the shootout, 5-4, left the Diplomats in shock. The crowd of 14,163 in the Rose Bowl delighted in the Aztecs' ensuing 2-0 win in the 30-minute minigame. Yet it was anticlimatic. Once the Aztecs survived the regulation game, they broke the Dips' spirit.
"How many times did we have that thing won?" defender Tommy O'Hara queried. "They were dead. Dead, dead, dead."
L.A. Coach Rinus Michels' first reaction to advancing to the NASL National Conference semifinals was: "I have to admit this is a very pleasant surprise."
To the Dips, Los Angeles winning this series, 2-1, was complete shock. The strangest of any of Washington's seven seasons ended as the Diplomats played some of the most courageous soccer in their history.
Even though he was marked closely by as many as three men all night, Johan Cruyff was superb, setting up chances for his teammates continually.
The defense and goalie Dragan Radovich, pressured constantly because the weakened midfield could not control the ball, gave up just one goal in the 105 minutes of the first game -- just one goal during the series first two games.
These Diplomats, without leading scorer Alan Green, without Juan Jose Lozano, without Joe Horvath, without Tony Crescitelli much of the night and without Carmine Marcantonio the last 100 minutes, came from behind to look like winners, first in the overtime and then in the shootout.
The play that seemed to finally kill the Diplomats -- the one Washington fans will discuss all winter -- came with time running out in the second overtime of the regular game.
The Dips had threatened to score on several occasions during the extra time, most notably when larusci hit the post with four minutes left.
Cruyff flew down the left side with less than 10 seconds on the clock. He was marked tightly as he went into the corner by Javier Aguirre. Once in fact, Aguirre knocked the ball away from Cruyff, killing precious seconds.
Finally Cruyff gained control. He spotted Thomas Rongen, who had sent the game into overtime with his first goal of season at 83:23, cutting into the penalty box.
Delicately, Cruyff lofted a pass right onto Rongen's head. Rongen followed through and slammed the ball into the net past L.A. goalie Alfredo Anhielo.
Series over. Diplomats advance. Player jump into each other's arms.
But no. Referee Warner Winsemann signaled that the goal had come a second after time had expired. He made the call without hesitation. The call was clear and he never asked for assistance from anyone.
"I don't know," Rongen said. "The last time I saw the clock was just before Johan passed the ball. It had four seconds then. I figure two seconds for the ball to get to me and one more for me to get it in. It should have been a good goal. I thought it was. But it wasn't my decision."
Rongen was particularly frustrated by the nullification of what would have been the winning goal. He played Saturday even though his sprained right ankle was still painful and swollen. He played because he felt he had something to prove to Michels, who unloaded him in July because he disapproved of Rongen's free-spirited life style.
"I played for pride," Rongen said. "I wanted to show these people they made a mistake letting me go."
Cruyff said he never saw the clock because he was watching Rongen.
But the other Dips, those not involved in the play, were unanimous in claiming that time had not expired.
"At the end of the half and at the end of the game he (Winsemann) lets play go on after the scoreboard is at zero," Iarusci said. "Now with our entire season on the line, he decides to split hairs."
The call sent the teams into the shootout. The Diplomats were 1-3 in shootouts in the regular season, the Aztecs 0-3.
The Dips were on top throughout. O'Hara made it 1-0 the first round with a left-footed kick. Luis Fernando, who had scored the Aztec goal at 60:25 when he beat Radovich to a long pass and scored from 28 yards out, didn't beat Radovich this time and it stayed 1-0 Washington after the first round.
The Aztecs evened it on round two when Iarusci missed the net and Leo Van Veen scored cleanly with a right-footed kick.
Then the team rode the roller coaster. Round three: Cruyff scored; Mihalj Keri answered, 2-2. Round four: Don Droege scored; Bob Sibbald did the same, 3-3. Round five: Rongen scored; Annandale's Gary Etherington, with the Aztecs season hanging in the balance, deked around Radovich and scored, 4-4.
Kenneth Mokgojoa missed badly in the overtime of the shootout. Aguirre cut past Radovich and scored. The Diplomats argued that the shot came after the five-second deadline had elapsed, but Winsemann ruled against them.
Aguirre's goal was good. The Aztecs won the shootout, 5-4, the game, 2-1. The series was tied, 1-1. For all intents and purposes, Washington's season was over.
"I thought the shot was clearly after the whistle," said Radovich, who was outstanding the entire series. "Funny, when we score right at the end of time it's no good when they do it is good."
"We got jobbed by the ref," Droege said. "I know that's an excuse for losing but, jeez, I think if you look back on 34 games all season, we got maybe one call.
"What can you say about this team?" he continued. "Look at the chances we had. We hit the post twice (Iarusci, O'Hara) and the crossbar once (Cruyff). Any other team those shots are in the back of the net. It's unbelievable. We gave 100 percent all the time. But we couldn't seem to do it when we absolutely had to."
The minigame was almost a given for Los Angeles. The Aztecs were flying, given their new life, the Dips were dragging. Michels inserted Dragan Simic to get a fresh player into the lineup and ended up looking like a genius.
Simic scored both goals, the key one coming at 9:56 of the game when he took a long cross from John McGrane and beat Radovich with a 10-yard header that just ducked under the crossbar. That was all L.A. needed.
"I still thought we were going to do it in the minigame," said Coach Gordon Bradley. "We didn't seem down. We were tired, but ready to win."
But their chance to win was behind them once the minigame began. To their credit, not one Diplomat mentioned how badly the team missed Green. His replacements, Mario Luna and Kenneth Mokgojoa had innumerable chances but simply could not convert.
"You have to score goals to win in the playoff," Cruyff said. "We had chances, so many chances. We didn't score. That is why we lost. It's too bad, it really it too bad."
Twenty minutes after their season had ended the Diplomats sat, to a man, in front of their lockers, quietly sipping beers or smoking cigarettes, their eyes focusing on nothing.
"A few hours ago we had everything to play for," Bradley said. "We had dreams. Now, the season's over. Suddenly, we have nothing. It's a very empty feeling."