Photos: From the collection of Steve Holroyd
With the recent acquisition of Abington native and Drexel alum Jeff Parke and hiring of Villanova graduate Jim Curtin as assistant coach—along with last year’s addition of Penn Academy alum Chris Albright and Homegrown signings Zach Pfeffer, Cristhian Hernandez, and Jimmy McLaughlin—the Philadelphia Union have continued a practice long seen in Philadelphia professional soccer. Traditionally, local professional soccer teams have always had a distinctly native flair, with the results on and off the field justifying the approach.
When one recalls how successful the City of Brotherly Love was on the pitch in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, it is not hard to understand why such a parochial approach would have been employed in the Modern Era (i.e., starting with the arrival of big-time pro soccer in 1967). From 1940 to 1968, Philadelphia clubs captured 16 league titles (including seven in a row from 1946 to 1953 by Philadelphia Nationals and Philadelphia Americans) and six U.S. Open Cups (all by Philadelphia Ukrainian-Nationals). Notwithstanding St. Louis’ domination of the college game during that era, Philadelphia could truly stake a claim as the “Soccer City” of the United States.
Perhaps because it was competing with the Ukrainian Nationals during the final years of their dynasty, Philadelphia’s first foray in pro soccer in the modern era—the Philadelphia Spartans of the National Professional Soccer League in 1967—only featured two Philadelphia natives. Although one of those players was Temple University star (and future U.S. National Team coach) Walter Chyzowych, the fans nevertheless ignored the team, deciding not to see a group of foreigners play in the not-so-cozy confines of Temple Stadium. From the beginning of big-time soccer’s return to the United States, Philadelphia fans made it clear: our players are among the best, and we want to see them, not a bunch of carpetbaggers.
The North American Soccer League returned to Philadelphia in 1973, and the Philadelphia Atoms made it clear they had got the message. In an era when no team was required to carry American natives on their rosters (and only the St. Louis Stars made any effort to do so), the Atoms—owned by local construction magnate Tom McCloskey, managed by Philadelphian Bob Ehlinger, and coached by Al Miller of Ono, PA—began their inaugural season with nine native born players. Among the players donning the “atomic blue and nuclear silver” of the Atoms were Ridley Park native Bob Rigby; Trenton, NJ native Bobby Smith; Penn University legend Stan Startzell; Philadelphia Textile defender Barry Barto; and stars from Philadelphia teams of the American Soccer League—Lew Meehl and Charlie Duccilli. These players were far from tokens in 1973—Rigby established a still-standing U.S. record with a 0.62 goals against average, Bobby Smith was named a second team all-star in the first year of a Hall of Fame career, and Startzell and Duccilli contributed key goals along the way. Complimented with just the right amount of foreign flavor—Jim Fryatt, Derek Trevis, Roy Evans and Chris Dunleavy from England; Andy Provan and George O’Neill from Scotland—the Atoms were a formidable side in their first season, ultimately winning the league championship.
Philadelphians responded to a team made up of their own in a big way, turning out for an NASL-record 21,700 to the Atoms’ first home game. The fans continued to come, and the team averaged 11,501 per match en route to the NASL title—a stunning figure in a league that otherwise averaged about 5,000 per game.
While one might suggest that the Atoms’ success on the field had much to do with the success at the gate, the next season showed otherwise. While missing the playoffs with a 8-11-1 record, the team still averaged 11,784 per game as fans came out to see Rigby, Smith, Barto, and local newcomers Bobby Ludwig and Skip Roderick.
By 1975, Startzell, Duccilli, Meehl, Ludwig, and Roderick were gone, replaced by the likes of Englishmen Tony Want, Bob Hope, and John McLaughlin. While such changes were probably necessary given the rapid strides in quality of play the NASL had made, Philadelphia fans were chagrined to see their local favorites replaced. The Atoms limped to a 10-12 record (again missing the playoffs), and not even the Rookie of the Year season of Chris Bahr (son of Kensington legend Walt) was enough for the team to draw more than 6,800 per game. By 1976, Rigby and Smith were sold, Bahr went to kick footballs in the NFL, and the Atoms were sold to a consortium of Mexican teams. By 1977, the team was no more.
A solid soccer market like Philadelphia cannot be ignored for long, and in 1978 the NASL returned with the Philadelphia Fury. The Fury attempted to emulate the Atoms’ success by hiring Ehlinger as general manager and bringing aboard ex-Atoms like Derek Trevis and Roxborough native Bill Straub. However, as opposed to the Atoms, the Fury tended to treat the local players as mere window dressing. Notwithstanding the goal scoring exploits of Rancocas Valley (NJ) high school graduate Pat Fidelia—the Fever’s supersub à la Princeton-raised Antoine Hoppenot—or the return of Rigby and Smith, the Fury never averaged more than 8,000 per game in its three years of existence.
Ironically, while the Fury were getting it wrong, another Philadelphia team were making it sure they got it right. The year 1978 also saw the arrival of the Major Indoor Soccer League and the Philadelphia Fever. With a roster composed almost entirely of United Soccer League stars like Alberto Alves, ex-Atoms Bobby Ludwig and Skip Roderick, and local college products like goalkeepers Woody Hartman (Temple) and Dan Brennan (St. Joe’s), defender Ed Sheridan (Philadelphia Textile), and George Lesyw (Temple), the Fever sold out the Spectrum in their first match, drawing over 16,000 for a win over Pittsburgh, and averaged a league-high 8,500 per game en route to making the finals, eventually falling to Shep Messing’s New York Arrows.
Unfortunately, like the Atoms before them, the Fever forgot that Philadelphia soccer fans were not as concerned with wins and losses as they were with being able to see their own on the field. As the 1973 Atoms and 1979 Fever had shown, a team of natives could compete against the league’s best. Nevertheless, the Fever dropped many of its local stars in favor of “experienced” veterans. Even though these veterans included ex-Atoms like Rigby and Smith, and the team still continued to bring in local talent like Dave MacWilliams, the fans were again turned off by the cavalier treatment of the local kids who made up the team in the first place. The Fever never again sold out a game or averaged more than 8,000 a game, and by 1982 were no more.
With the demise of the Fever, pro soccer would not return to Philadelphia until 1996. Alas, it was not a franchise in the brand-new Major League Soccer, but an expansion franchise in the indoor National Professional Soccer League. The Philadelphia KiXX entered the circuit drawing upon players from local colleges, and featured Philadelphia and vicinity legends like Don D’Ambra, Tony Bono, Joey Murtaugh, Bill Andracki, and Delran, NJ native and former U.S. National Team captain Peter Vermes. In ensuing years, other local stars like Matt Knowles (Archbishop Ryan HS) and Billy Joe Esposito (Riverside (NJ) HS and Rutgers) joined the fold, and the fans responded. The KiXX regularly drew crowds in excess of 10,000 to the old Spectrum, and were among the NPSL’s attendance leaders from 1997 through 2000. The team also had success on the field, winning several division crowns and reaching the playoffs in every season.
Like the Atoms and Fever before them, however, the KiXX soon jettisoned players like Esposito and Murtaugh to bring in foreign “experience.” While the strategy paid off—the KiXX lost the 2001 finals before winning in 2002 and 2007—and the KiXX never completely abandoned the practice of employing locals (adding players like La Salle’s Cesidio Colasante along the way), the bloom had worn off those great Spectrum crowds. With the “pure” game of outdoor soccer attracting more and more fans, indoor soccer slowly withered away in Philadelphia; with the demolition of the Spectrum, the KiXX limped their way through a season at an ill-suited Liacouras Center in 2010 before disappearing for good.
A maturing market
By then, of course, the Philadelphia Union had arrived. While history would have suggested that the team should have made more of an effort to acquire local stars like Bobby Convey (Philadelphia) and Jon Conway (Media) in the expansion draft, it was quickly apparent that the soccer audience in the Philadelphia had “matured”—good soccer, regardless of source, was what the fans wanted to see. Since 2010, the Union have enjoyed great success at the gate, and the fans have been a major part of that success.
Interestingly, while Philadelphians have grown past parochialism, they have not lost the passion that has always made them among the sport’s top fans, and this passion is a main attraction for some of the league’s better players. Both Sebastian LeToux and Jeff Parke have made it clear that they want to retire in the Philadelphia kit, and a number of other players have indicated that Philadelphia is the place to be. While the past saw fans only willing to come out and support Philadelphians, we now see soccer players from all over wanting to come to PPL Park because of the fans.
In future seasons, and with the growth of area academy programs and the concept of “home grown” players, it can only be expected that the Union will take on more of a local flavor as players like Zach Pfeffer mature and other players from FC Delco, Mt. Laurel United, and other top clubs work their way through the system. When that time comes, it will bring with it the return of a proud tradition of Philadelphia soccer by Philadelphians.