The Washington Diplomats got exactly what they wanted last night. On center stage with all eyes upon him, Johan Cruyff proved he is still a headline performer.
Cruyff, in his first start since he returned to Washington two weeks ago, scored the game's first goal on a header as the Diplomats defeated the hapless Toronto Blizzard, 2-0, before 10,559 at RFK Stadium.
The Diplomats' victory, the first in regulation since June 14, enabled them to stay in second place, two points ahead of Montreal, which defeated San Diego, 4-0, at home last night. Montreal visits the Dips Sunday afternoon.
But before the Dips think about le Manic, they will savor last night's victory -- a triumph that everyone agreed should be dedicated to Cruyff. "He was brilliant. Cruyff was damn brilliant, wasn't he?" shouted Washington's Paul Cannell afterward.
Not even Cruyff thought that he would be able to sprint and turn and jump and kick so well just 10 days after he was hobbling around with a pulled thigh muscle. But then, Cruyff has always had that sense of the dramatic. And last night, his performance was perfectly scripted.
Just 15 minutes into the game, after Cruyff had been introduced to a rousing ovation, Dip defender Ivan Belfiore played a ball beautifully 30 yards down the sideline to midfielder David Bradford.
Bradford, the 5-foot-5 playmaker, took two or three dribbles before sending a neck-high centering pass into the goal box. Bradford has sent the same pass through that zone a dozen times in the last month, but his teammates have always found a way to botch the play.
Not this time. Cruyff, still limping slightly, ran straight to the spot where he through Bradford would play the ball. Before Toronto goalkeeper Tony Chursky could react, Cruyff had headed the ball into the Blizzard goal to give the Diplomats a 1-0 lead at 15:50. It was Washington's first shot of the game and the chants of JOHAN . . . JOHAN weren't far behind.
"I though to myself, 'Oh, bloody hell, he's headed in a goal,' said Duncan Hill, Diplomat general manager. "It was the least likely thing I expected him to do." With good reason. Cruyff said he couldn't remember the last time he scored a goal with his head.
"Johan made space for himself well in the goal box," said Malcolm Waldron. "You could see the class he has. He made us all better players tonight. And we responded."
But to put things in perspective, Toronto, the second worst team in the North American Soccer league (5-18), was without its best player, Jomo Sono, out for the season with a broken ankle. Toronto was the last team to lose to Dallas, which had lost 20 straight games before defeating Portland, 1-0, last night. Even Hill said, "They weren't terribly threatening, were they?"
But Cruyff, sitting in the locker room with an ice pack on his thigh and groin, took the evening's heroics in his typical fashion. "Everybody was satisfied for at least that one moment," Cruyff said.
And Cruyff the perfectionist wasn't happy with the way the Dips squandered at least seven excellent opportunities to score. The Dips led, 1-0, until Bradford scored with nine seconds remaining, off a pass from Don Nardiello.
Until then, the Dips dominated the retreating Blizzard, but were still in danger of being tied. The Dips took 29 shots to Toronto's eight. The Blizzard passed the ball back to their goalkeeper at least nine times.
"Toronto played poorly," Cruyff said.
"There was a lot of useless running out there. Some of it was our fault, because we just aren't used to each other.I was playing the ball where they weren't expecting it and they were doing the same thing."
"You would think in their position, they'd attack a little more," Bradford said. "They played a lot like Dallas." The Toronto offense forced Brown to make only one save en route to his fifth shutout of the season.