Ken Furphy had the appearance of a man who had just had a great weight removed from his shoulders.

A glass of beer in one hand and a broad smile on his face, the Washington Diplomat coach for once was enjoying a postgame party. Never mind the blare of a Pat Benatar record and the haze of cigarette smoke that hung heavy in the Anaheim Stadium Club, Furphy had better stuff to savor: Washington 4, California 3.

The past few weeks have no been kind to Furphy and the Diplomats. After the team won eight of its first 11 games this North American Soccer League season, the Diplomats had slumped to a 10-11 record before Saturday night's game against the Surf. In addition, the boost that the arrival of Johan Cruyff should have provided was delayed when a groin problem sidelined the Dutch star.

Now, however, Washington's fortunes might be turning around once more. This time, the Dips, not the opponents, won with a Merriwell finish -- a goal by Heinz Wirtz five seconds before overtime would have ended and resolution would have been carried to a shootout.

The outcome against the Surf brought the team back to the .500 level and, while catching the first-place Cosmos will be next to impossible in the Eastern Division, the nine-point maximum garnered by the Diplomats kept them three points ahead of Montreal after the Manic's Sunday victory over Dallas.

Furphy was quick to point out that his son, Keith, gave the Dip playoff chances a big lift Friday night with the winning goal for the Atlanta Chiefs in a 3-2 triumph over Montreal.

"That really helped us," Furphy said, noting that his team now begins a three-game home stand that includes matches against division rivals Toronto and Montreal on Wednesday and Sunday, respectively.

"By the end of next week, we'll have a better idea of where we stand," he said, adding that Cruyff appears to be recovering well and should be in the starting lineup Wednesday evening against the Blizzard.

With Toronto all but eliminated from the picture, the battle for second place in the division will be between Washington and Montreal and Furphy believes the Diplomats have the edge.

"Montreal has a very tough schedule remaining," he said. "They have to play the Cosmos three times and us twice. We have to play the Cosmos only once more."

With six of their final 10 games at home and with four of those 10 against the two weakest teams in the NASL, Toronto and Dallas, the Diplomats are well positioned to make the playoffs.

Goalkeeper Jim Brown said the victory over the Surf was important because it showed that the team could win even without Cruyff. "We've played great all year," he said. "We've never been out of a game, we've never been hammered. People have got to realize that we've been scoring goals. "We play attacking football and that allows other teams to attack us. Seeing goals is what people pay for and tonight they really got value for their money."

After building a 3-1 lead midway through the second half on goals by Malcolm Waldron, Ross Jenkins and Trevor Hebberd, the Dips almost let Saturday's game slip away.

"This has been a season where we've been winning like that, 2-1 or 3-1," Furphy said, "and then we've ended up losing in overtime or on a shootout. I wasn't happy when we were 3-1 up; we needed a goal."

Instead, the Surf scored twice late in the contest to send it to sudden death. Only a superb save by Brown in the closing minutes of extra time prevented the Diplomats from losing their third game in a row.

Steve Moyer, the leading American-born goal-scorer in the league, cracked a sizzling volley toward the lower left-hand corner of the net. Somehow, Brown flung himself to his right to claw the ball out of the air only inches off the ground and Moyers was left holding his head in despair.

"I just caught a glimpse of the shot," Brown said. "I actually dove before he hit it, it was just a reflex. I didn't have any time, it was a split-second decision and I was lucky enough to get to it."

Less than a minute later, Brown sent the ball out to Wirtz, playing in the sweeper position instead of midfield and Wirtz, after exchanging passes with Clive Haywood, suddenly found himself with a clear shot at goal.

With only those five seconds on the clock, the 27-year-old West German made no mistake, firing home a tremendous shot that even Surf Coach Laurie Calloway praised.

It had been, as Washington owner Jimmy Hill said, "a nerve-wracking game," but, when the season is over, it may also have put the Diplomats back on the road to the playoffs.