Johan Cruyff hesitated when he walked out of the customs area at Dulles Airport yesterday and saw the crowd of 150 or so gathered to meet his flight from London.

"I'm surprised there are so many," said Cruyff, the 34-year-old Dutch soccer star whom the Washington Diplomats acquired two weeks ago in an attempt to save the struggling team at the gate and on the field.

"But these people are why I came back to Washington," he continued. "Not for the money. It's the city and the people. My family loves it here."

Cruyff will not start tonight's 7:30 game against San Diego at RFK Stadium, but he will be on the bench in uniform -- wearing his familiar No. 14 -- and may play. He expects to be ready to start Saturday's 5 p.m. game against Seattle, also at RFK.

"Physically, I'm all right," Cruyff said, referring to the groin surgery he had in late May. "Maybe I'm not as fast as I was 10 years ago, but I see more now. I don't waste energy like I did when I was younger and faster."

Duncan Hill, the Diplomats' general manager, said Cruyff was examined last Thursday in Coventry, England, by a surgeon who said he needed seven days' rest before playing full throttle.

"We have undoubtedly the greatest player in North America at the moment," Hill said. Yesterday was the first time Hill or Coach Ken Furphy had met Cruyff, who played for Levante, a second-division club in Valencia, Spain, after the old Washington Diplomats' franchise was folded last November.

"I saw him once in a game in Engand," Furphy said. "He was marvelous, magic and majestic. He left me spellbound. Johan was a puppeteer pulling all the strings. We have here a magic man."

With excellent playmakers in David Bradford and Peter Baralic already at midfield. Cruyff will probably play up front. Furphy and Cruyff will talk later this week and work out Cruyff's role.

"I'll play wherever the coach wants me to," said the sometimes temperamental Cruyff, who had several run-ins with former coach Gordon Bradley last season.

Hill said he hopes Cruyff's presence will attract an extra 2,000 to 3,000 fans per game for the eight remaining home games.

"Maybe we can save the franchise and not have a team fold like the one did last year," said Cruyff, whose salary for a half a season has been estimated at $175,000.

"It didn't take long to make up my mind to return to Washington," he said. "I want to play on a grass field, my (three) children are growing up, and my family had an opinion about returning. We have a lot of friends here. We'll be returning to a beautiful house and neighborhood. I'm not going to make any predictions about how long I'll play or my role on the team. I'm just very pleased to be back."

Cruyff, his children and wife Danny, whose back problems had her confined to a wheelchair yesterday, were whisked off to appear on an evening television news show on which Diplomat forward Paul Cannell often appears. Cruyff said he will probably appear on the show once a week. He is determined to promote soccer, especially among the area's youth, he said.