This was supposed to be the day Johan Cruyff and the Washington Diplomats would push aside Montreal, take firm hold of second place and take another step toward realizing their playoff aspirations.

But by the time Montreal had scored its fourth straight easy goal in the stifling heat of RFK Stadium yesterday, the Dips had melted like candle wax. Cruyff, his groin muscle reinjured, was in the dressing room and two other Washington starters had left the lineup with injuries.

Cruyff missed the entire second half and his teammates might as well have done the same. After the Diplomats built a 2-0 lead, Montreal exposed all the Dips' weaknesses in a 4-2 victory before 14,601.

The Dips (12-12 with 104 points) dropped to third place for the first time this season and the Manic (12-11, 109) took over second in the NASL's Eastern Division. All first-and second-place finishers qualify automatically for the playoffs. Unless the Dips can regroup for the final eight games of the season, they will have to qualify as a wild-card team or miss postseason activity altogether.

Yesterday, behind ingenious play making by Cruyff and two excellent goals by David Bradford (on assists by Peter Baralic), the Dips took a 2-0 lead in the first 29 minutes. Still, it was evident that Montreal was playing better than Washington.

"Even though we were leading, 2-0, we weren't playing that well," Washington Coach Ken Furphy said.

The play after Bradford's second goal -- a header of a splendid cross from Dave McGill -- demonstrated what Furphy meant.

Before Bradford had finished blowing kisses to the crowd, Montreal sweeper Bob Vosmaer had taken a pass from teammate Fran O'Brien and raced 60 yards unmarked down the far sideline. He kicked the ball left-footed past Dip goalkeeper Jimmy Brown, cutting the Manic's deficit to 2-1 at 29:15.

"To allow that goal in professional soccer is disgusting," said Cruyff. "I hope that's the last time it happens."

Not long after that, Cruyff was tripped inside the midfield circle by Montreal's Tony Towers. Cruyff played the remainder of the half, slightly favoring his left leg, but didn't return for the second half. Cruyff had a groin operation in May and subsequently pulled a muscle in his thigh.

"I'm optimistic," Cruyff said. "I'll let it calm down for a few days and see how it feels." Washington's next game is Saturday night at home against Minnesota.

Also before halftime, Washington defender Ivan Belfiore pulled a muscle in his thigh -- this, too, aggravating an earlier groin injury. When Heinz Wirtz, suffering from the flu, couldn't return for the second half, the Dips were missing three key players.

Bradford had to abandon his goal-scoring runs to act as playmaker. Trevor Franklin replaced a more agile Belfiore. Offensive-minded Willi Kiefer replaced defensive-oriented Wirtz, and Ross Jenkins tried to replace Cruyff.

"Ross Jenkins is no Johan Cruyff," Furphy said.

So the Dips took the field with quite a different team from the one that held a 2-1 halftime advantage. Montreal started quickly, taking the Dips by surprise with a neat trick.

"We were clogging the middle with me, Gordon Hill and Andy Parkinson," Montreal forward Thompson Usiyan said. "Then our fullbacks would come up and cross. We would have an extra man open to shoot crossing passes inside."

Off that plan of inside-out attack, Usiyan scored three second-half goals, in the 52nd, 74th and 79th minutes. The first two were headers that resulted from well-placed crosses that beat the Washington defense. The last was a rebound kick after Brown had stopped a shot by Alan Willey.

"They did seem to always have an outlet on the wings," Diplomat defender Malcom Waldron said after reflecting upon Montreal's strategy.

Meanwhile, without Cruyff, the Dip offense sputtered. "Johan makes such a big difference in that team," said Montreal's Carmine Marcantonio, a former Diplomat.

"The few things he did in the first half resulted in them scoring two goals. He's their catalyst. Johan caused us all kinds of problems on defense. Once he went out, it was a letdown for them and a boost for us."

Cruyff was not flattered. "Whether I'm in or out of the lineup, teamwork has got to stay the same," he said. "Giving away four goals is no way to play."

"Our loss today has a lot to do with our style," Waldron said. "Our play depends largely on hard, hard work, hitting long balls and chasing.

"We'd make one run and that was it. You couldn't make another one for five minutes. They play a different type (soccer). They push the ball around, don't expend as much energy."