History / NASL / Philadelphia Soccer History

Great Philly soccer teams: Philadelphia Atoms, part II

This concludes the two-part “Great Philly soccer teams: Philadelphia Atoms.” You can read Part I here.

Before Atoms coach Al Miller took the young team to England to train and to scout for some British players to fill out the roster, back in Philadelphia, Atoms general manager Bob Ehlinger’s marketing skills were put into play. In addition to players,the team needed a name. So a name-the-team contest was held with the winner being awarded an all-expenses paid to the FA Cup Final. Press coverage was cultivated. Given the woeful state of Philadelphia professional sports at the time, the local press enthusiastically covered the new team. Favorable coverage was aided by the fact that throughout the season Miller proved to be a natural with the press.

The Atoms first game was away to the St. Louis Stars. Like the the Atoms, the Stars also fielded a squad filled with Americans, as they had done for years. It proved to be an inauspicious start as the Atoms lost 1-0 in front of a paltry 6,782 spectators. Concerns about whether the Atoms would be any good aside, some wondered if teams filled with Americans would be able to draw fans: with the exception of the Stars and Atoms, only 19 Americans were on the rosters of the other seven teams then in the NASL.

Steve Holroyd writes, “Skeptics around the league expected that the ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ would also fall flat. Philadelphia soccer fans thought otherwise: a league-record 21,700 fans went to the home opener at Veterans Stadium on May 11, “after a parade of 3,000 youngsters in full soccer dress welcomed the team.” The debut home game was against Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Tornado, a team that had won the NASL championship in 1971 and had made it to the semifinals in 1972. Though the match ended as a scoreless draw, the Atoms had shown they could hold their own against the league’s best. Throughout the season the fans kept coming. By the end of the season, attendance at Atoms games would be nearly twice the league average with 11,382 per game.

The Atoms are good
The 1973 Philadelphia Atoms

The 1973 Philadelphia Atoms

Success at the gate was due to two factors. First, the Atoms players endeared themselves to their fans by being accessible: the players regularly showed up early to games to meet their fans and sign autographs and community outreach was the norm. And fans appreciated the team’s scrappy and resolute style of play. Fans loved Andy Provan, nicknamed “the Flea.” His hard-nosed play earned him comparisons to the Flyers Bobby Clark. Led by Rigby in goal, the backline “No Goal Patrol” of Bobby Smith, Chris Dunleavy, Roy Evans (who had joined the Atoms on loan from Liverpool and who, after his return, would later have a long coaching career there, eventually managing the team in 1994-1998) and Derek Trevis (on loan from Stockport County) led the league for fewest goals in a season with Rigby’s .62 goals per game setting a NASL record. The Atoms played the way Philadelphia sport fans admire: tough.

The second factor is simple: the Atoms were good. After their opening loss to St. Louis, the Atoms went on a thirteen game unbeaten streak. Ending the season as Eastern Division champs, they lost only two games the entire season.

The Atoms would meet the only team with a better record, the Dallas Tornado, in the NASL championship game. Dallas was no stranger to the big game and they were no stranger to the Atoms either. After drawing 0-0 to Dallas in their home opener, the Atoms had beaten Dallas 2-1 away later in the season. Because the championship game was scheduled for August 28th, both teams lost key British players who had to return home for the start of English league soccer play. The Atoms lost two of their leading scorers, Provan and Jim Fryatt. Under suspension in England, Dunleavy was available for the game.

The Atoms starting lineup for the championship game featured six Americans, including Bill Straub, a Philadelphia native who had gone to the University of Pennsylvania and had been a mid-season acquisition from Montreal Olympique. Straub was a defender who had yet to play a single minute for the Atoms. Miller put him upfront. After a goal-less first half, Dallas defender John Best, who had been a star on the Philadelphia Spartans, scored an own goal midway into the second half of the final. With a little less than 5 minutes to go, Dunleavy fed the ball to Straub, who administered the coup de grace with a header. Philadelphia had its first professional sports championship since the Wilt Chambelain and the 76ers had won the NBA title for the 1966-1967 season.

After the championship

In a 1984 interview in Soccer Digest, Bob Rigby remembered, “After the game all our players got totally drunk. Emotionally, I was as high as I’ll ever be. It was a great feeling to win the title, especially as a rookie. The problem was that it happened too fast.”

Bob Rigby, the first soccer player featured on a SPorts Illustrated cover. From September 3, 1973

“Philly’s Bob Rigby,” the first soccer player to be featured on a Sports Illustrated cover, September 3, 1973.

While the cover of Sports Illustrated that featured Rigby – first ever to feature a soccer player – proclaimed after the Atoms victory “Soccer Goes American,” expectations that teams dominated by Americans could repeat the Atoms achievement proved premature. Said Rigby, “We did so well – you can’t do better than winning your division and then winning the championship – that people expected us to do it again next season. We had a great season, but we couldn’t match it again . . . Another problem was that our success gave people the wrong idea about American players. People who wanted more Americans on the field – and I’m one of them – pointed to our roster and said, ‘See, they won the title with all those American players. Every team should do that.’ But a lot of the American kids were not ready for the pros.”

Although the Atoms didn’t make the playoffs the next two seasons, there were a few highlights. Attendance rose for the 1974 season to an average of 11,784. Dunleavy was named a first-team NASL all-star, Rigby and Trevis named to the second-team. The Atoms finished third in the Eastern Division in 1974.

Though they lost the match, in 1974 the Atoms played the touring Red Army team in the “Big Bang” for indoor soccer in America at the Spectrum. The success of that match up led to the NASL beginning an indoor tournament before the start of the regular season. This provided the impetus for the formation of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL, 1978-1984), which in turn led to a confusing array of indoor leagues including the American Indoor Soccer Association (AISA), later renamed National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). The NPSL folded after 17 years of existence which led to the National Indoor Soccer League (NISL) and several other incarnations of MISL, in which the most current the Philadelphia KiXX play.

While in 1974 ten native-born Americans were on the Atoms roster, a scoring drought that season meant the roster was overhauled for 1975. Players moved on to other clubs. Although a few local players such as Chris Bahr – the brother of Casey Bahr, the 1975 NASL Rookie of the Year who would go on to a long career as a place kicker in the NFL – and Bobby Smith – in 1975 the first native-born American to be named to the NASL all-star first-team – were on the roster, the team began to rely more on foreign players. Attendance drastically declined: the season average for 1975 was 6,849. The Atoms finished fourth in the Eastern Division.

Team owner Tom McCloskey’s longtime hope had always been to own an NFL team. He seemed to get his chance with the expansion team Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, the deal soon went sour. With a sour economy affecting the profitability of his construction business and no longer able to afford the financial losses of the Atoms, McCloskey looked to sell the club. Calling Philadelphia “one of the absolutely top areas in the country in soccer interest,” NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam stepped in to help find a buyer. With no local investors forthcoming, the team was sold to United Club of Jalisco, a syndicate of four Mexican soccer clubs. Miller elected not to return as coach and took over at the Dallas Tornado. Now playing  it’s games at Franklin Field and fielding a squad of unfamiliar players, attendance continued to drop, the season average of 6,449 being generously inflated by the 25,000 who showed up to see the Atoms play Pele and the Cosmos. The Atoms again didn’t make the playoffs, again finishing fourth in the Eastern Division. At the close of the season the team was placed into receivership by the league.

After the Atoms

So, where are they now? Al Miller, who briefly managed the US national team in 1975, would have a long coaching career and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995. Bobby Smith left the Atoms to play for the Cosmos, played for the national team and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007. He now runs the Bobby Smith Soccer Academy outside of Trenton. Bob Rigby played for the national team and was a fixture in the NASL and MISL and has coached youth soccer. Barry Barto played for the national team and enjoyed a long career in the NASL before embarking on a long and successful college coaching career, first at Philadelphia Textile and then at UNLV. Charlie Duccilli went on to be a player-coach of the ASL’s Delaware Wings before moving on to a long career coaching women’s soccer at Rutgers and then the WUSA’s New York Power. He now is director of coaching at the Cafe Express Soccer Club in Cape May. Several Atoms players would eventually play for the next NASL team in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Fury, as well as the indoor Philadelphia Fever.

Lessons

Aside from the pride Philly soccer fans can have in the way the Atoms won the NASL championship in their first year, what can we learn from their all too rapid demise? Steve Holroyd argues, “The Philadelphia Atoms had provided a blueprint for all other American clubs to follow, combining grass roots appeal with attractive football to create a product that even the casual sports fan could follow and embrace,” but that “the signing of Pelé and the arrival of other world-class superstars basically wiped out the grass-roots movement before it could bloom. Instead, ‘trendy’ fans packed the stands, leading to a false sense of success. However, few American players graced NASL pitches.”

Well, maybe. While it is undeniable that the the NASL’s rapid expansion was instrumental in its equally rapid decline, that the Atoms were a “blueprint” for success in the 1970s is less certain. As was noted earlier, St. Louis followed a similar “blueprint” and the fans stayed at home. And Bob Rigby described how there simply weren’t enough American players of quality to fill the rosters of the league. Fans, be they “trendy” or not, cannot be blamed for wanting  to see good play any more then they can be blamed for wanting their team to win championships. If the Atoms had not won the championship in their first season, would attendance have risen the next?

The quick demise of the Atoms, following so closely to their championship season debut, showed the dangers of unrealistic expectations, be they on the part of club owners or fans, just as much as 70,000 people showing up to watch the Cosmos play at Giants Stadium would prove to unrealistically represent interest in and the viability of the NASL, whatever such turnouts might say about the potential audience for the soccer.

Owners need deep-pockets and a commitment not just to their team but to growing the game of soccer in a country which, despite the long history of the sport here, has until very recently viewed that sport as foreign. After the first two seasons McCloskey did not have the money to sustain the Atoms. It is questionable whether he ever had the commitment to grow the game of soccer. Clubs and players need to work on the pitch and off to garner and maintain fan support. Only then can committed and capable investors be found in troubled times, only then will fan support continue in bad times as well as good. For the first three seasons the Atoms worked hard for their fan support. That no local investors could be found to buy the team before the 1976 season is telling: business people invest in projects to make money. Clearly no local investor thought they could make money out of the Atoms, which, despite our best wishes, says something about the viability of a top flight professional team in Philadelphia in the 1970s. That there was a fourth season at all now seems remarkable.

In their success, the Philadelphia Atoms foreshadowed the development of American-born players as capable of professional-level quality on the pitch and as legitimate favorites in the stands on a scale never before evident and now regularly apparent in the MLS. They quieted skeptics by showing that an American-born coach could lead a team largely made up of American players to a national championship. Their success sparked fan interest in a struggling NASL, leading to a resurgence in the league that only increased with the signing of Pele and other world famous international players. In the four seasons that the Atoms played in the NASL, the number of teams in the league more than doubled from nine to twenty. As such, the Atoms role in the soccer explosion that continues in America to this day was key.

But the real importance of the soccer explosion is not measured in the boom and bust that was NASL. As professional soccer league the prime reason for the existence of the NASL was to make money. As such, the excitement that surrounded the Atoms was at best a grassroots moment, not a grassroots movement. Rather, what truly defines the soccer explosion that began in the 1970s was not the existence of the NASL, it was the rapid proliferation of youth teams and leagues around the country, sparked in no small measure by the excitement generated by the NASL. That was the real grassroots movement that began in the 1970s and it is ongoing. That grassroots movement created two generations of American soccer fans who love and understand the game because they have played the game. It also has created the pool of American-born players that not only fills all levels of the American soccer pyramid, but also players capable of playing in the best leagues in the world. Soccer is no longer simply a sport of immigrants, it is a sport played and watched by millions of Americans of all ages and both sexes. The roots of that movement are stronger than ever and continue to bloom to this day. Soccer is going American still and the Philadelphia Atoms part in this is largely unsung.

If the “blueprint” for soccer’s success in America as embodied in the Philadelphia Atoms was questionable in the mid 1970s, it is undeniably true now. Thankfully, MLS, and the Philadelphia Union, seem to understand this. May they continue to do so.

You can read the full Sports Illustrated cover story from September 3, 1973 celebrating the Atoms NASL championship here.

You can read Steve Holroyd’s year-by-year history of the team, which was invaluable in writing this article, on the Philadelphia Atoms fan site here. Also of interest there are some great photos, images of the team’s kit, and a player register and the interview with Bob Rigby. It is well worth your time.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page » Starting young, more news

  2. Pingback: The Philly Soccer Page

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  4. Pingback: Celebrating the Atoms

  5. Åh, vilken fin undulat! :DOkej, jag förstår. Kul med lite eget sådär. :)Förra helgen var jättebra, denna har också börjat bra. På söndag är det jobb igappHon.es du får en trevlig helg! :)Kramar

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