Frustrated by an aggressive Washington defense most of the night, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers turned to Teofilo Cubillas when it meant the most. The Peruvian idol tied the North American Soccer League opener late and then won it, 2-1, with a piece of pretty work only 80 seconds into an overtime period.
Surely as bumpity-bumpity physical as any Diplomat team ever, these emigres from Detroit bewildered the favored Strikers for nearly 85 minutes. On Malcolm Waldron's goal off a corner kick with 17:39 to play, Washington needed less than six minutes of safety to upset a team that made it to the Soccer Bowl last year.
But Cubillas scored first with 5:35 to go in regulation, then again quickly in the sudden-death.
Until then, the Diplomats' goal-keeper, the skinny Scot Jim Brown, had been spectacular, turning aside three point-blank shots by the hometowners playing in front of their largest opening-game crowd ever, 14,560.
Together less than two weeks now after its transformation from the Detroit Express into the born-again Diplomats, Coach Ken Furphy's outfit was remarkable for its cohesiveness. So new is this bunch that it started three Englishmen who set foot in America only three days ago. So new is it, too, that the Diplomats played without a team name across their chests tonight, the lettering delivered in time but the wrong size.
When Waldron pulled the ball away from two Strikers to chip in his goal, Washington seemed in position to win. Its defense had been efficient throughout, with the Strikers making nothing of two chances in the two minutes before Waldron scored.
After Cubillas failed at the 9:36 mark, two factors came into play, according to Waldron and Furphy.
"Unfortunately, we were going backwards and backwards," said Waldron, meaning that with the lead the Diplomats grew conservative on offense and thought only of retreating to stop the oncoming Strikers. "When we should have been going forwards, we were going backwards."
For a team so new that Furphy two days ago said it "would take three years for these boys to play together as they should," the coach found little fault.
The Diplomats, who play at Atlanta next Sunday before opening at home April 11 against Montreal, protected tonight's 1-0 lead until committing a pair of cardinal errors late. "Cubillas was unmarked there when he tied it," said Waldron. "You should never give away a goal with like four minutes to play." And on the winning goal, Waldron said, "Someone just let him run through. It was a lack of concentration."
Cubillas' first goal came with only 5:35 left. Taking a long cross-field pass from Steve Ralbovsky, a substitute for injured star Gerd Mueller, Cubillas struck a sharply angled left-footer just over the leaping Brown and into the right corner of the net.
The Strikers leaped to the attack quickly in the overtime and had the Diplomats reeling.
Eighteen seconds into it, Ruben Morales sent a shot skidding to Brown's left. Only a wonderful save kept the game alive.
A minute and two seconds later, here came Cubillas, who, it is said, is unstoppable one-on-one in an open field.
Only if was one-on-three, Cubillas in traffic with three Diplomats.
With a head fake, he pulled Brown off the ground, and he neatly rolled the ball under the diving keeper. It rolled gently into the back netting.