The Washington Diplomats are virtually certain to remain here next season under the ownership of Madison Square Garden Corp. if the North American Soccer League votes in a new scheduling format at its meetings next month.

If the new schedule is approved, the Garden would retain ownership next season -- unless the board of Gulf and Western steps in and insists the club be sold, action that is considered extremely unlikely, according to team sources.

Sonny Werblin, chairman of Madison Square Corp., had hedged about the Dips' future all season. According to informed sources, that is because he is unhappy with the league and does not want to make a commitment to the future until he sees whether changes he has long advocated will be made.

According to those sources, Werblin will not make a final decision on the future of the Diplomats until after the league meeting Oct. 20-22 in Toronto. At those meetings, league owners will vote on changing the schedule so that teams play from 12 to 18 intradvision games a year. At the moment, teams play six intradivision games.

"The issue of whether the team belongs in Washington is dead," one team source said. "Madison Square Garden is not going to move this team anywhere. But Sonny has always had problems with the direction of the league and he wants to see what will happen at the league meetings before he makes a final decision.

Werblin and Jack Krumpe, MSG executive vice president, have long maintained that the league's scheduling is folly. After the Dips drew 53,000 against the Cosmos in June, Werblin stormed out of the Washington locker room, saying, "We could do that three or four times a year if they would give us a chance."

There is strong feeling within the league to make the scheduling change, largely because travel costs have become so prohibitive. More intradivision play would decrease expenses and also increase natural rivalries.

If the league votes for the new schedule, it is a virtual certainty that the Garden will retain ownership next season. If not, there is a possibility the team will be sold. In that eventuality, Steve Danzansky, president of the team, has first-refusal rights.

Additionally, team sources say that Werblin is leaning towards keeping Johan Cruyff in Washington next season. The Dutch superstar was the focus of controversy throughout the season because of an ongoing battle over tactics with Coach Gordon Bradley.

Some of those problems were ironed out by season's end. Bradley holds two posts right now -- coach and personnel director. He has said he will relinquish one next season but has yet to decide which one prefers. Team sources say that right now he is leaning towards the personnel job, partly because he wants to spend more time with his family, partly because he knows such a decision would probably make it easier for Cruyff to return.

If Cruyff does return, his contract (one year with two option years) calls for him to receive a substantial increase over the $500,000 he was paid this season.

The consensus among the Dips' management is that Cruyff has been a worthwhile investment, since he played a major role in the team's attendance increasing from 11,973 per game to 19,205 per game and lent tremendous credibility to the 7-year-old franchise. Cruyff, 33, would like to return to Washington next season. All he has said publicly since the season ended is. "The first decision is up to them (management). If they want me, then we talk."

Werblin and Cruyff have not talked yet but, when they do, Cruyff will ask for certain changes in the way the team is run day to day. Werblin will ask that he try to be less outspoken in the future.

"I think it will work out," said one team source. "Johan would like to be here next season and the Garden would like him to be back. If you both want the same thing, you tend to work things out."

But before they can make a final decision on Cruyff, Garden management must make a final decision on the league. MSG will undoubtedly lobby heavily in the next month for the scheduling changes.

Andy Dolich, Diplomat general manager, who said in July he was certain the team would return under Garden ownership next year, says plans for next season are going ahead without thought of a change in ownership.

"I'm still certain we'll be here next season," Dolich said. "It would seem incredible to me if we weren't."