August 25th is the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Atoms’ NASL championship win over the Dallas Tornado. PSP will be celebrating the Atoms and their historic inaugural season championship win with a series of articles in the run up to the anniversary. The series continues with a look at how the Atom’s connected with and were embraced by Philly Sports fans.
The Atoms opened their inaugural season in relative anonymity, falling to the Stars 0-1 on May 5 before 6,782 in St. Louis.
Still, Coach Al Miller, who was born in Lebanon, Pa. and grew up in nearby Ono, showed in what direction he intended to go, starting Bob Rigby, Casey Bahr, Bobby Smith, Lew Meehl, and Manny Schellscheidt in his opening lineup–all Americans, with only one naturalized citizen (Schellscheidt) in the bunch. St. Louis, for its part, started seven Yanks, and used two more for subs.
This was an anomaly, however; excepting the Atoms’ and Stars’ rosters, a grand total of 19 Americans filled out the rosters of the other seven clubs in the NASL.
There was nothing to indicate that pro soccer would take off in Philadelphia. The city’s franchise in the National Professional Soccer League six years earlier had not drawn particularly well, and the North American Soccer League’s other recent attempt at expansion—New York’s Cosmos, Toronto’s Metros and Montreal’s Olympique in 1971—had not set the world on fire, with the teams averaging 4,282, 7,173, and 2,308 per game, respectively, in 1972.
Nor was it expected that the “gimmick” of actually playing Americans would draw fans: St. Louis had been using a predominantly American line-up for years, but had not been able to draw fans. Indeed, the NASL was resigned to the fact it was not going to attract fans until it signed a player of international renown. As early as 1971, a Sports Illustrated article entitled “Quick, Somebody…A Pelé!” provided some insight into Commissioner Phil Woosnam’s plan for success.
The “Philadelphia Experiment”
It caught American soccer by surprise when the Atoms drew a league record 21,700 fans to its home opener at Veterans Stadium on May 11, after a parade of 3,000 youngsters in full soccer dress welcomed the team. A brand new team playing its first ever home game shattered the old NASL attendance record by about 3,000 fans. Something big was happening at Broad and Pattison.
The fans kept coming, too. When New York came to town on June 8, 9,168 fans came to watch. Over 10,000 fans attended the next home match, and Philadelphia drew crowds of 12,128, 17,449, and 18,375 to its final three regular season home games. By the end of the season, Philadelphia drew almost twice the league average with 11,382 per game.
The Atoms’ success was not limited to the gate, either. After losing their first match, the Atoms went unbeaten 12 games, and lost only two games the entire season, winning the Eastern Division title.
The Atoms defense of goalkeeper Rigby, and defenders Smith (converted from forward), Chris Dunleavy, (future Liverpool coach) Roy Evans, and Derek Trevis made up the “No Goal Patrol,” setting a league mark for fewest goals against in a season. Rigby finished the year with a 0.62 goals against average, a record that would stand for the rest of the NASL’s history—and, in fact, remains the U.S. Division One record today.
In addition, the back four proved their skill when Rigby went down with an injury in the middle of the season. Playing in front of backup Norm Wingert (father of Real Salt Lake defender Chris), the Atoms continued to be a dominant side defensively.
On the other side of the ball, Andy Provan finished third in the league in scoring, and linemate Jim Fryatt proved to be a dominant force in the air and a perfect foil for Provan. At the end of the season, Dunleavy, Provan and Fryatt were named first team all-stars, while Rigby, Smith, Evans and Trevis made the second team. Provan and Fryatt finished second and third in NASL MVP voting.
Provan, in particular, exemplified much of what Philadelphians love in their athletes.
Nicknamed “The Flea” because of both his stature (5’5”, 140 pounds) and his leaping ability, Provan established his reputation with the fans in the Atoms’ second home match. At one point in the game, the New York Cosmos’ Randy Horton–all 6’2”, 195 pounds of him–leaped into the air and landed on Provan. Incensed, Provan jumped to his feet and began shaking his fist in the face of Horton. Looking straight into Horton’s beard, Provan slapped the big Bermudian, starting a fight that saw both players ejected. Philly loved a fighter–presaging the adoration that would soon greet the Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” in hockey, Provan was beloved as a scrappy underdog.
The People’s Team
More importantly, the players connected with the public. Appreciating the value of connecting with fans, the Atoms were more accessible than athletes on the city’s other teams, routinely showing up to Veterans Stadium ninety minutes before games to meet with supporters. The team’s hustle and gutsy play also went a long way in a city absolutely starved for a winner. In short, the Atoms were successful on the field and at the gate because they played “American” soccer, featuring many American—indeed, Philadelphia-area—players.
And, of course, they were winning—in a city that could count its major sports championships on one hand (the Eagles’ last title was 1960; the Sixers’ only title was in 1967, and neither the Phillies nor Flyers had ever won a championship), the fact that a winner was in town was exciting stuff. Add to the mix that these winners were a brand new team, and seen as the ultimate underdogs as the team featured a group of local kids going up against experienced foreigners, and you had a Cinderella story for the ages.
Of course, the dream could end just as quickly started. Having won their division, the Atoms still had to survive two playoff games before the title was truly theirs.
Click here to link to the rest of the series and more articles on the Atoms.