The new Washington Diplomats have found a way to train for the season without attracting a lot of attention: they've gone to England. While Coach Ken Furphy is trying to get the current crew ready, General Manager Duncan Hill is working the telephones in Washington looking for new players.
"We might be close to a verbal agreement with a player, then he scores three goals in his own country, and they won't let him out," Hill said last week. "It's hard, combing the world for good players who aren't already committed."
Hill says he needs two defenders and a striker to complement what he thinks are the strengths already on the roster -- goalie Jim Brown, defender Ivan Belfiore, midfielders Peter Baralic and Dave Bradford and strikers Paul Cannell and Don Nardiello. The team, the 14-18 Detroit Expres last year, has eight players under 24 years old on its 15-man roster.
"I'm trying to sign four players," Hill said. "One superstar would cost all of my money. I'll have a better handle on who they will be in a couple of days."
Furphy said he hopes to sign five more players before the season opener, Saturday night in Fort Lauderdale against the Strikes.
Two defensemen have been tentatively signed but the team does not want to say who they are. Hill is also negotiating to get an Argentine forward.
The best of the new Diplomats reportedly is Brown, 28-year-old Scottish goalkeeper. "One word will adequately describe him," Hill said: "brilliant."
Brown was rated the third-best keeper in the NASL's American Conference last season, and seventh in the 24-team league. The Express allowed 52 goals last season, eighth in the league, although a writer who covered the team last season observed that the defense was "probably the weakest component of the team." Brown and teammate Bradford set a league record last season by playing every minute of every game (3,004:40).
A team spokesman said Brown is recovered after breaking a finger in six places when a shot smashed his hand against the goal post. While his finger was bandaged, Brown played forward.
His durability will be even more crucial because the backup goaltender is a 19-year-old rookie, Dale Baxter. The team thought it was set at that position with the winter acquisition of veteran Gene DuChateau from Tulsa. But DuChanteau went AWOL after the indoor season, leaving Coach Furphy a note that read, "Decided to go to California. Sorry."
Furphy is trying to give Baxter more work in England. The Dips were defeated, 3-0, by Hartlepool last Wednesday night. Their next exhibition is against Coventry City Tuesday.
Whoever tends goal could be in for some tough games because of a questionable defensive unit. Benny Dargle and Belfiore, 20, will combine with 36-year-old Assistant Coach Eddie Colquhoun.
Three of the starting midfielders figure to be Baralic, Bradford and Dave McGill. Baralic will be the team quarterback. The 5-foot-6 Bradford is "the hub of what happens on this team," Hill said.
The general manager said he is considering three players to fill the left-side midfielder spot.
On offense, last year's Express scored only 51 goals, 17th in the league. Up front, Hill is trying to find someone to complement striker Cannell, who scored 37 goals in 69 games in three seasons as a Diplomat and was popular with the fans.
Forward Nardiello, picked up from the Coventry City club, will miss the first three weeks of the season after pulling a hamstring muscle against Hartlepool.
Hill had to sell promising young striker Pato Margetic because the team needed money.
The team will play in the NASL's Eastern Division, which includes the champion Cosmos, who come to Washington twice this season, to the delight of the Diplomat's general manager. RFK sold out for a Cosmos game last season.
The Dip's opener will start a new chapter in the city's soccer diary. The prologue began in 1963 with the Washington Brittannica, an amateur team that joined the American Soccer League in 1967 as the Washington Darts, who were upgraded to professional status.
The short-lived soccer boom of the '60s allowed the ASL to be challenged by the United Soccer Association, which brought its Aberdeen Dons of Scotland here in 1967 to play in D.C. (now RFK) Stadium as the Washington Whips, giving the District two professional soccer teams.
The Whips won the USA's Eastern Division, but lost the league title to Los Angeles in double overtime. In 1968, the USA evolved into the NASL.
But soccer interest in Washington seemed to bottom out in 1969, and the Whips folded. It took two years before the Darts were absorbed into the NASL.
The Darts played before tiny crowds on high school fields around the area before moving in 1972 to south Florida, where they became known as the Miami Gatos, then the Toros and finally, in 1976, the current Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Meanwhile, the Washington Diplomats were organized in 1974. For three seasons, the team played at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax. Steve Danzansky moved them into RFK Stadium in 1977 and Madison Square Garden chieftain Sonny Werblin took over the team in 1979 and 1980, before disolving a franchise that drew an average of more than 19,000 last season.