It's afternoons like yesterday that make having Johan Cruyff worth the big money and long wait for the Washington Diplomats.
In the Diplomats' final regular-season home game, Cruyff scored one of the most memorable goals ever seen at RFK Stadium, a 40-yarder while being guarded by three defenders, in leading the Diplomats to a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Blizzard that vastly improved Washington's playoff hopes.
The Diplomats need a victory in the season finale Tuesday in Montreal to assure themselves of making the playoffs. The Dips (15-16, 135 points) are in 14th place overall, with the top 15 qualifying for the first round of the playoffs.
The Dips could lose and still make the playoffs. But Portland (15th, 133 points) or Jacksonville (16th, 132) would have to lose and score fewer than three goals if Washington is shut out. Should the Dips be tied in total points with Jacksonville or Portland for 15th place, Washington would be eliminated because it would have fewer victory points (excluding bonus points for goals).
A Washington victory over Montreal (14-17, 137) would put the Diplomats in second place in the Eastern Division, good for an automatic berth. If they do qualify, the Dips will play their first opening-round playoff game Sunday at 2 p.m. at RFK Stadium.
The Dips beat the Blizzard (6-25) for the fourth time this season with a swarming offense and superb defense that was led by goalkeeper Jim Brown and defender Eddie Colquhoun. Brown played exceptionally well again, stopping 11 shots by Toronto and assisting on two of his teammates' goals.
Nevertheless, the play that left most of the 9,226 spectators spellbound was Cruyff's goal, which gave Washington a 2-0 lead at 25:15. Cruyff had not played since mid-July because of a groin injury and team management had said last week it did not expect him to play again this season.
But there he was yesterday. After a Toronto drive was stopped, Diplomat defender Ivan Belfiore sent a pass upfield to the Dutch midfielder. He took the pass and was immediately surrounded by three defenders.
Showing none of the ill effects of the injury, Cruyff turned 270 degrees with the ball to confront all three Blizzard backs, then stutter-dribbled two steps forward.
By this time, Toronto goalkeeper Blagoje Tamindzic had come several yards out of the net, as usual, to direct his defenders. Cruyff, still 40 yards away, looked once at Tamindzic to see if he would retreat.
When the keeper held his position about 15 yards in front of his goal, Cruyff kicked the ball off his right foot. The ball traveled at least 40 yards in the air on a line-drive trajectory.
Tamindzic took one step backward, but the ball sailed over his head and bounced into the net. It took a moment before even veteran observers realized what had happened.
"I've seen Pele do it before," Diplomat Coach Ken Furphy said afterward. "And maybe one other person. But it's not the type of thing you see every other week."
Said Cruyff: "I saw the possibility for the shot 10 yards earlier -- as soon as I turned. I knew I just needed to knock it and let the wind take it. I knew where the goalkeeper was. But it wasn't his fault. How many times can this happen?. . . I did it once, I think, about seven or eight years ago."
"The execution isn't that difficult," Furphy said. "It's being able to see the situation."
Besides being artistic, the Cruyff goal seemed to deflate the Blizzard while convincing the Diplomats they could do anything with him on the field.
Clive Haywood's goal finished the Blizzard. Only 57 seconds into the second half, Haywood increased the Washington lead to 3-0 with sheer hard work.
Brown sent a long pass that Haywood raced under and guided inside the 35-yard line. Toronto defender Gianpaolo Boniperti tried to prevent the breakaway by grabbing Haywood's arm and dragging him backward, but before the referee could whistle a penalty, Haywood had yanked away and scored his third goal of the season.
Diplomat winger Trevor Hebberd scored his second goal and Heinz Wirtz put in another in the second half to complete Washington's scoring.
The Diplomats' only letdown came at 77:22, when Bruce Wilson crossed to fellow defender Colin Franks, who headed the ball in past Brown. Toronto's goal came just 35 seconds after Cruyff, 34, had left the field because he was tiring.