Striker Paul Cannell, one of the most popular players in the history of Washington professional soccer, once again will be the center of attention when the Diplomats play host to the Montreal Manic tonight at 7:30 in the new franchise's home opener. A crowd of 12,000 is expected at RFK Stadium.

Montreal is not especially worried about Cannell's effervescent personality. The team is far more concerned about the possible psychological advantage he holds over Montreal goal-keeper Bob Rigby.

Four years ago, Ribby was tending the goal for the New York Cosmos when they came into Woodson Stadium to play the old Diplomats. Cannell, one of the most aggressive strikers in the league, collided with Rigby on two occasions when the two were going after the ball within the goal box.

A third collision -- this one in midair -- left Rigby lying motionless with a broken collarbone. He also had convulsions and nearly swallowed his tongue. a Cannell, who had already scored a goal on a header, scored the game-winner against a substitute keeper and the Dips had defeated the Cosmos for the first time.

Cannell had faced Rigby several times since, always with success. "Last year when I was at Memphis and Rigby was at Philadelphia, I scored two goals against him," Cannell said. "Every time we play against each other, he always has a little smile. But during the game, he has one eye on me and the other on the ball.

"It's very much to my advantage because if a goalkeeper starts worrying that much about a forward, he makes it more difficult to do his own job. He's wary about where I am on the field because of those collisions."

Cannell said he doesn't plan to intimidate Rigby tonight, but will play "according to the tempo of the game."

Cannell's current coach, Ken Furphy, was the Cosmos' coach the night Rigby was injured. Furphy said yesterday that Cannell, often criticized for rough play around the goal, "will not be allowed to play that way for me."

Diplomat goalkeeper Jim Brown is thankful that he is now playing with Cannell instead of against him. "He worries you so around the goal," Brown said yesterday. "You can't afford to hamper your own game by looking around for him. But you know he's there somewhere."

The more of Rigby's attention Cannell occupies, the more scoring opportunities figure to be created for Cannell and Ross Jenkins, the Diplomats' 6-foot-6 forward who is a great target for crossing passes from the corners.

Playing with Cannell and Jenkins up front will be Angus Moffat, a 32-year-old Scotsman. But Furphy says he is still looking for a sure combination up front.

Furphy describes his team as very strong across the middle, where he will start Trevor Hebberd, Peter Baralic, 5-foot-6 David Bradford and 20-year-old Dave McGill. The backline starters will be Benny Dargle, Peter Carr and Malcolm Waldron, an offensive-minded defender who scored the winning goal last week against Atlanta.

Furphy expects his midfielders to be aggressive on offense to make up for having only two "out-and-out forwards" (Moffat is a true midfielder). In Furphy's system, Hebberd and Baralic are like swingmen. "It's a very fluid formation," he said.

The coach said he knows little about Montreal, whose nickname is derived from the city's Manicouagan River. Le Manic is playing its first game since moving from Philadelphia, where the team was 10-22 as the Fury.

The two players Furphy is concerned about, from reputation alone, are midfielder Fran O'Brien and tiny striker Gordon Hill. There are three former Diplomats playing for Le Manic: Carmine Marcantonio, Barney Boyce and Sonny Askew. "Oh, yeah," Cannell said. "Sonny'll love coming back here. He and Carmine will be super excited."

Montreal Coach Eddie Firmani has nine players 23 or younger, making Le Manic even less experienced than the Diplomats, who have seven players 23 or younger. The defenses on both teams are acknowledged as weak spots. Rigby, and Brown, starting in goal for the Dips, could have good games and still allow two or three goals.

"This could be a high-scoring game," Cannell said. "There is no reason to think this will be a defensive game because these are two attacking teams."

Montreal's defense was superb, however, in a 1-0 exhibition victory over Peru last week.