When the Washington Federals last played the Express on March 14, they departed the Los Angeles Coliseum in pain, as if they had spent the evening on the rack rather than the field. The 20-3 defeat to the Express was just a small part of the losses.

On the red-eye flight back to Dulles, running back Craig James winced with a compression fracture of the spine, quarterback Mike Hohensee could not move because of a fractured sternum and receiver Reggie Smith wore a fresh cast around a broken ankle.

Hohensee and James, the team's most valued rookies, missed the next five games and Smith, a diminutive yet effective player, has not returned. If the Federals began the season a middling team, the injuries made them perhaps the league's worst.

Beginning the season with as few solid players as they did, the injuries to James and Hohensee made a difficult process virtually impossible for the Federals. James' substitute, Eric Robinson, is neither big enough nor strong enough to play as a durable halfback. Only when he was able to concentrate fully on his role as a return specialist did Robinson show himself to be an asset.

A quarterback as young as Hohensee requires as much playing time as possible to develop. Jauch said in training camp that he thought Hohensee capable of hitting his stride after four or five games, but with the injury Hohensee did not begin to show promise until late in the season. With Hohensee out of action, Coach Ray Jauch had a difficult time deciding whether to use Kim McQuilken or Joe Gilliam.

Though they are 2-14, the Federals are an improved team coming into this afternoon's rematch with the Express at RFK Stadium (1:30 p.m., WMAL-630).

With fortune continually evading them, the Federals have managed to become the first professional football team ever to lose five games in a season by a total of 10 points. Last week's 27-25 loss to the Panthers in Michigan, which ended with a field goal in the closing seconds, was typical of the year.

The Federals are again hurt by injuries. Hohensee now has a knee injury, Mike Holmes will miss his third game in a row with a deep thigh bruise and receiver Joey Walters, the only Washington player to appear on the league's most valuable player ballot, is out with a hyperextended left knee.

With McQuilken at quarterback, the Federals will use a control offense, relying mainly on running backs Billy Taylor and James. McQuilken has completed 58 of 83 passes for 414 yards in the past three games; 42 of those completions have been to the running backs. Starting for Holmes and Walters will be Mike Harris and Stan Rome.

Perhaps last week's most encouraging sign for the Federals was their defensive effort against a strong Michigan team. Doug Greene returned an interception for a touchdown, scoring the defense's first points of the season, and the linebacking corps of Mike Corvino, Mark Muller and Joe Harris played its best game of the year.

Before the season began, a number of coaches and scouts thought the Express would be at least as good as the league leaders, Philadelphia and Chicago. Coach Hugh Campbell had been extremely successful in Canada and seemed headed toward further victories in the new league. But while the Express is in a race for the Pacific Division title, the team's mediocre 7-9 record is more indicative of their quality. Last week Los Angeles committed six turnovers and lost, 20-13, to a weak New Jersey team.

Former UCLA star Tom Ramsey has taken over the starting quarterback position from NFL veteran Mike Rae, and has begun to play with some consistency. Ramsey throws a great deal to tight end Rickey Ellis and fullback LaRue Harrington.