The Washington Diplomats, 8-3 at the start of the season, have lost 10 of their last 14 games and five of their last six. What happened to a team one North American Soccer League official once described as "the sweetest surprise in the league?"

Midfielder David Bradford offered a frank appraisal. "We were successful at the beginning of the season because we worked as a team," he said. "But now it's, 'You do your bit, I'll do mine.' We're just a bunch of individuals running around on the field. Nobody's helping each other out and we're not communicating. It's like we're saying, 'Okay, Ross Jenkins has got the ball now, let him do his thing.'"

When asked how such a turnaround happened almost overnight, Bradford replied, "I couldn't tell you. I swear, I just odn't know. All it may be is one player's confidence going, then another, then it sprads through the team. It's a mystery.

"There are so many things wrong, I just can 't put a finger on one thing," Bradford said. But thee are certain areas in which the Dips, who play in ydallas tonight at 9, know they are deficient.

On opposing teams' corner kicks, the Dips have been standing around watching the corner kicker while men slip free inside the penalty box for unobstructed shots at goalkeeper Jimmy Brown. "Guys are getting unmarked into the penalty box all the time," Bradford said.

Bradford, who orchestrated the midfield before Johan Cruyff's arrival, said the midfield has been playing "unbalanced" in recent games , at Cruyff's urging. "We've been sending three midfielders forward instead of sending two and leaving one back to protect against counterattacks," Bradford said. The Dips have improved their offense with this tactic, but are more vulnerable on defense.

The team has three set throw-ins from the sideline and is using none of them correctly. "I know that sounds picky, a little throw-in," Bradford said. "But messing up little stuff like that can lead to the opposition scoring when we should have possession of the ball."

The entire team defense has been poor lately, not just the back line. "The defense, which had been our strong point, started becoming suspect in the Tulsa game," Coach Ken Furphy said. "When we beat Chicago, 2-1, I thought the problem was solved. It wasn't."

Bradford went on. "The defensive problem is the fault of the entire team. If the forwards and midfielders allow two or three guys to run 60 yards unmarked before they get to the back line, for example, whose fault is that?"

The Dips have had difficulty dealing with teams adept at heading, particularly close to the goal. Mntreal scored three goals on headers in a contest for second place 10 days ago.

The Dips are missing a scoring forward who can be depended on to at least get off a good shot or two with the game on the line. "We lost six to eight games by not putting the ball in the net," said Gary Dlemmen, a limited partner in the franchise. "We don't have that somebody up front who can stick the ball in the net consistently."

And then there is the Cruyff situation. Management assumed paying him $175,000 for half a season would help everything. Buty Cruyff, plagued with groin injuries, has played the equivalent of less than two games since he signed July 1. He has missed four games and will not play tonight or Sunday in Toronto.

"At the start of the season, I thought we'd win this division," said Bradford. "We figured we were as good as the Cosmos then."

Things started downhill on May 31, the Sunday afternoon the team lost its first home game, 3-2, in overtime to a Tulsa club it had beaten on the road six days earlier. Since then, the Dips have dropped to third place in the Eastern Division, with seven games to go. If the regular season ended today, the Dips would make the playoffs, even if they do have the 14th-best record in a 21-team league. Furphy says winning both games this weekend is a must to achieve a playoff spot.

"Looking back, it all started with that game here aginst Tulsa," Furphy said. In the game, the Dips trailed, 2-0, but caught Tulsa and went into overtime tied, 2-2. Then, with less than a minute remaining before the shootout, the Dips stopped concentrating, got sloppy, and lost.

"We lost some of our confidence after that game," Bradford said. "We started the season so well because we played as a team. But after one or two bad results, we got down on ourselves. The confidence just wasn't there." t

With the exception of an inspired road victory at Chicago June 14, the Dips have floudered since. Now, with 11 players injured, the Dips hope they can win at least five of seven games to make the playoffs.

"If there was just one thing wrongd I could put my finger on, this would be easy," Furphy said. "We play Dallas (4-22) and Toronto (5-21) this weekend, the worst two teams in the league. But our record over the last 14 games hasn't been much better."