Philadelphia Soccer History

Midnight for Cinderella? The “Atom Bomb” before the 1973 final

Photo: Jim Fryatt, courtesy of nasljerseys.com

August 25th is the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Atoms’ NASL championship win over the Dallas Tornado. PSP is 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 team coped with the loss of two of their most important players mere days before the championship final.

On August 18, 1973, the first-year Philadelphia Atoms thumped Toronto Metros in the North American Soccer League semifinals, winning 3-nil before 18,766 fans at Veterans Stadium.

With the win, the Atoms earned their way into the 1973 NASL championship match. This was something exciting in the city of Philadelphia—the last team to play in a one-off final game was the Eagles during the 1960 National Football League championship (as this was the first year of the American Football League’s existence, there was no Super Bowl yet). While the 76ers had won the National Basketball Association title six years earlier, that was in a best-of-seven series which the Sixers took in six; thus, there was none of the “winner take all drama” that one would find in the Atoms’ title match.

Adding to the drama were all the elements of a story that could only be cooked up by a Hollywood screenwriter. By earning their way to the final, the Philadelphia Atoms were only the second ever expansion team to make it to a league championship in their first year of existence (following the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues in 1968; even there, however, the deck was stacked as the NHL playoff format at the time guaranteed an expansion team would reach the Stanley Cup finals). A team of newcomers vying for a league title was simply unheard of. Yet, a group of Philadelphia boys and English lads had made it happen.

(Note for sticklers: while the Cleveland Browns won the NFL title in their first year in the league (1950), they were not an expansion team, but an existing one that came over as part of the NFL’s merger with the All-America Football Conference. Similarly, the 1970 NASL champion Rochester Lancers, while new to the league, had existed for several seasons in the American Soccer League before jumping circuits.)

Completing the Cinderella season by winning the title would not be easy, as the Atoms would face the Dallas Tornado. The Tornado were the “supporters shield” winners that year (if one had existed), going 11-4-4 through the season. Dallas were also a well-established side, being one of only three original franchises still remaining from 1967, coached by the well-respected Ron Newman and led by veteran all-star selections Ken Cooper (father of FC Dallas forward Kenny) in goal, Ilija Mitic (F), former Philadelphia Spartan John Best (D), Dick Hall (M), and Richie Reynolds (F). To top it off, the Tornado also featured the NASL rookie of the year, Kyle Rote Jr., who became the first (and only) native-born American to lead the league in scoring with 10 goals and 10 assists.

The Atoms had a long row to hoe. However, Philadelphia fans leaving Veterans Stadium on August 18 were confident that their boys could get the job done.

Then came the bombshell.

Gamesmanship and expiring loans

Back in 1973, the NASL final was not yet the “Soccer Bowl,” a pre-scheduled final set at a neutral location. Instead, the final was hosted by the team with the best overall record.

More to the point, the host team also got to pick the date of the final. And it was here that Dallas decided to engage in some gamesmanship. Dallas General Manager Joe Echelle picked August 25, which just happened to be the day that any “loan” players were due back to start their seasons in England.

The gambit was not without some risks on Dallas’ part: the August 25 date meant that two of the Tornado’s starting forwards (Nick Jennings and all-star forward Reynolds) and a starting back (John Collins) would have to go home before the final. However, Dallas felt that it had enough depth at those positions, with league-leading point-getter Rote and all-time NASL leading scorer Mitic still in the lineup, to not feel the loss as badly.

The Atoms, on the other hand, were about to be devastated.

“Provan, Fryatt Drop Real Bomb on Atoms” blared the Burlington County Times on August 20, one day after the Southport club in England ordered the return of the Atoms’ two leading scorers, Andy “The Flea” Provan and Jim Fryatt.

The conflict was never supposed to happen. When the NASL season began, officials from Southport and the Atoms agreed that the players would return in time for the English season, on September 1.  However, no sooner was the ink dry on the deal when the English FA moved the start date to August 25.

Provan and Fryatt recalled

Photo from the Aug. 20, 1973 edition of the Camden Courier-Post of Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt after learning they would have to return to England.

At the time, the Atoms did not consider the change to be a big deal. After all, as an expansion team, Philadelphia had no reasonable expectations of being a playoff team, and its season would have been well over by the end of August. As the magical season progressed, however, Atoms’ management knew that had a potential problem on their hands.

“We have known about this for a month now,” said Atoms’ General Manager Bob Ehlinger after the two forwards were ordered home. “We have been in constant touch with Southport in an effort to negotiate their stay for the championship game.”

However, Southport was about to start its season as a newly-promoted Third Division side, and was a club in dire financial straits. Southport’s board felt press and fan reaction would be disastrous if the two Southport stars were not in uniform. Nevertheless, the Atoms felt Southport were being petty. The English season was 45 games long, and Southport’s opener was on the road.

Still, Philadelphia wanted to have the two men back in 1974. “That is the reason we didn’t push Southport too much,” said Philadelphia coach Al Miller. “We didn’t want to cause hard feelings because we hope to get them back next season. Any strong arm tactics would ruin it for us in the future.”

The players themselves were devastated. “I’m not so sure I want to play with [Southport],” said Fryatt, who had recently been voted Most Valuable Player by his teammates. “I feel I’m letting these lads [the Atoms] down by going home right before the big game.”

Provan, for his part, took a more pragmatic approach. “These lads are going to be okay. They are going to go down and beat the pants off Dallas without us. They won’t be hurt that bad. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want to go but if I want to play over there I have to.” Lest anyone doubt his sincerity, newspapers ran a photo of a tearful Provan on the phone with Southport officials.

Atoms soldier on

The Atoms had a third Southport player on the roster—all-star defender Chris Dunleavy. However, he was suspended for the first two games of the English season, and was permitted to stay for the NASL final.

“Maybe Jim and Andy should have kicked someone, too,” Dunleavy offered.

In any event, the Atoms had their work cut out for them—an expansion team, without its two top scorers—facing an established Dallas side, itself only a year removed from its last NASL title.

Miller nevertheless prepared to go to war with the army he had, not the army he wished he had. Replacing the two all-stars would be two local boys: former Temple star Charlie Duccilli, and Bill Straub, an all-American defender at Penn who was acquired mid-season from Montreal and had not played a minute for the Atoms.

Duccilli, like Provan, was a shifty, clever player, capable of changing directions quickly while on the attack—the like-for-like substitution approach made sense. Moving Straub up to the front line was more of a head scratcher. However, Miller’s hope was that Straub’s 6’1” build and considerable heading skills would allow him to be a suitable substitute for Fryatt, a demon in the air.

“The Atoms have always relied on team play,” Miller said.

Still, the championship game would be one hell of a place to prove that theory.

Click here to link to the rest of the series and more articles on the Atoms.

4 Comments

  1. I completely forgot about this issue coming up so late. I guess that, since I was only ten at the time, I just wasn’t as tuned in to the business end of things. Nice job.

  2. thomas kanyak says:

    I followed the atoms back then an this article this brought back a lot of memories! I didn’t know the story behind Fryatt an Provan having to go back to Southport. There wasn’t an internet back then of course.

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