Despite losing eight of their last 11 games and playing miserably for the last month, the Washington Diplomats are in a better position to automatically qualify for the playoffs that the fast-closing Montreal Manic entering the last third of the NASL's 33-game season.
The Dips, with Johan Cruyff starting his first game, will begin a crucial three-game homestead tonight when they fact Toronto, also of the Eastern Division at RFK Stadium at 7:30. The Dips are expecting 10,000 to 12,000 for the game.
The Dips (11-11,94 points) are currently in second place in the division, only three points ahead of Montreal (10-11), which has played one game less than Washington. Both teams are hopelessly behind the Cosmos (158 points).
But in this last month of the season, the Dips will face 10 teams that have an aggregate record of 95-126, a winning percentage of only .430. Meanwhile, Montreal's 11 opponents have a winning percentage of .550 and a combined record of 132-108.
"The main goal now is to reach the playoffs," Diplomat General Manager Duncan Hill said yesterday. "We just have to make the playoffs. It's very important to the franchise. We have three consecutive home games, two of those with division opponents. We're in control of our own destiny."
The Dips have the distinct advantage of playing four games against the two worst teams in the league: Toronto (three times) and Dallas, which has lost 20 straight games. Washington faces le Manic at home Sunday and in Montreal in the final game of the season.
The Manic which is the league's most pleasant surprise on the field and at the gate in its first season, must contend with the defending-champion Cosmos three times. Montreal also has to play Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Vancouver.
"We're in a nice position," Hill said. "We've just got to tighten our defense and not concede easy goals. We've already started to score again. The addition of Cruyff to the lineup will do two things: his tremendous experience will help calm everybody down when we are in a tight game and his own presence will frighten the life out of the opposition.
"Just last night, I was talking to Johan and he said, 'Don't worry about the offense. The opposition is going to put three men on me, anyway.'"
The Dips will have to collapse completely to miss the playoffs, and lose six or seven of their last 10 to fall out of third place. Even them, they would have to be one of the six worst teams in the league to miss out, because 15 of 21 teams qualify for the playoffs under the NASL's current system. Each of the five division winners and second-place finishers automatically qualifies.
Now the Diplomats are only concerned about holding onto second place. To do so, they'll have to sustain their attack for an entire game. The Dips are hoping that Cruyff will provide the impetus.
Even a so-so attack should be enough to beat Toronto, a team that has changed coaches and picked up two new players in the last month. The Blizzard's best player, the daring Jomo Sono, is out for the season with a broken ankle.
The Dips defeated Toronto, 4-2, in the teams' only meeting, April 26.
Diplomats starters Ross Jenkins and Benny Dargle are listed as doubtful. Jenkins is having trouble running after being kicked in the shin against California last week and defenseman Dargle has a pulled muscle in his stomach. With Jenkins out, Paul Cannell may start. Trevor Heberd, a starting winger for much of the season, will miss Sunday's 2:30 home game against Montreal because of a one-game suspension for amassing too many caution points.