Featured image: 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 the Atoms’ win over the Dallas Tornado in the NASL championship final.
After his team was eliminated by Philadelphia in the NASL semifinals, Toronto head coach Arthur Rodregues said the key for Dallas in the next round would be minimizing the threat posed by Andy “The Flea” Provan and Jim Fryatt, the Atoms’ leading goalscorers, each of whom had tallied against the Metros in Philadelphia’s 3-0 win at Veterans Stadium.
“They will keep Provan and Fryatt very close,” Rodregues explained. “That’s what I tried to do. To keep Philadelphia down, you must have fast midfielders.”
Unfortunately, the Atoms couldn’t keep Provan and Fryatt close themselves.
Both players, along with defender Chris Dunleavy, had joined the team on loan from English third division side Southport at the start of the NASL season. Southport had agreed to loan the players until the beginning of the English season, which was scheduled for Sept. 1. But soon after the loan agreement was signed, the start was rescheduled for Aug. 25, the same day as the NASL championship final.
Dunleavy, who was already going to miss the beginning of the English season due to suspension, would be able to stay with the Atoms through the final.
Despite every effort, the Atoms management was unable to convince Southport to allow Provan and Fryatt to stay. Atoms general manager Bob Ehlinger told Alex Yannis of The New York Times, “We’ve telephoned Southport officials virtually everyday for the past two weeks, and Al Miller, Tom McCloskey and myself were even willing to fly over to talk to them or have them come here to talk to us at our own expense. But they said they had some injuries and must have Jim and Andy back.”
Two weeks before the final, Dallas had seen three players of their own return to home club Portsmouth.
In the place of Fryatt and Provan, the Atoms would start Bill Straub and Charlie Duccilli. The 6-2 Straub, who had played as a defender at the University of Pennsylvania, had joined the team only a month and a half before from Montreal Olympique and had yet to play in a game with his new team. Duccilli, who had bagged 66 goals while at Temple University, had played in four games with only one start.
Even without their leading goalscorers, the Inquirer’s Dave Sims reported the Atoms “came to Texas with all the confidence in the world” for the NASL championship final on Aug. 25, 1973. Some 18,824 were on hand at Texas Stadium for the game, a new record for a NASL final.
That confidence was immediately apparent following the kickoff and throughout the first half. Save for a few forays from the Tornado, most of the play that wasn’t taking place in Dallas’ end took place in the middle of the field. Still, despite three dangerous goal attempts in the first half, the Atoms were unable to finish and the teams went into the locker room tied 0-0.
Nevertheless, the Inquirer reported that it felt like “it was only a matter of time, with the penetrating offense used by the Atoms, [before] an Atoms forward would knock in the first score.”
But when the breakthrough came in the 63rd minute, it was Dallas defender John Best who did the scoring with an own goal.
The play began when Atoms midfielder — and future Liverpool FC manager — Roy Evans delivered a looping free kick from 20 yards out. Best, a former Philadelphia Spartan, attempted to clear the ball but mishit it. Dallas goalkeeper Ken Cooper could do nothing but watch as the ball dribbled past him into the right corner.
Best said after the game it was “one of those things.”
For Dallas head coach Ron Newman, the own goal was a tiding of things to come. “It looked typical of the way the game would end. You know the way fate is. You knew they were going to score.”
Now down a goal, Dallas was forced to take chances. In the 77th minute, Kyle Rote Jr. found Ilija Mitic, who shot from 13 yards out. Atoms goalkeeper Bobby Rigby was able to get enough of a touch on the shot to send it banging off of the left goalpost. A diving Rigby then stopped a rebound shot from Mohammad Attaih.
Atoms coach Al Miller said of Rigby’s efforts, “That’s got to kill you. He lifted us with those saves.”
Much of Dallas’s hopes rested on Kyle Rote Jr., dubbed “The American Dream Machine” and named the league’s Rookie of the Year with 10 goals. Atom’s defender Chris Dunleavy had other ideas.
“In England, we play hard,” Dunleavy explained to Sports Illustrated’s Edwin Shrake. “Rote understands. He accepted me hitting him hard, and I accepted him hitting me. I kept it physical and hard, so he would know I was there.”
“He wanted everything right up to him,” the defender said of Rote. “He just died of it in the second half.”
In the 86th minute, Bill Straub put the game to bed.
Again, Evans played the delivery man, lobbing a kick from ten yards out to Straub, who finished with a header.
“I made a long run — I really jogged,” said Straub. “I had stopped because George O’Neill had gone in. Roy must have seen me out of the corner of his eye. I jumped and put it in. It was perfect timing.”
For Atoms defender Bobby Smith, it was simple. “Your chances are better when the other team is pressing,” he said.
Minutes later, the Atoms were champions.
“This game has got a hell of a future here”
After the game, the Atoms players described how Miller’s emphasis on conditioning saw them through the final.
“He kept beating the hell out of us,” said Charlie Duccilli, “and we still loved it.”
“Teams can’t keep up with the pace we set,” Miller explained. “Anybody that tried to run with us, we blew them out.”
O’Neill said of the Dallas players, “They died out there. You could see it in their eyes.”
Dallas coach Ron Newman was blunt about his team’s performance, saying, “I don’t know if they were scared of the crowd or what. They were so bloody nervous it was ridiculous.”
“We were so poor, we couldn’t have beaten a high school team,” Newman continued. “We were so keyed up to win in front of our home fans, and we blew it.”
In praising the dedication of his team, Miller also saw in it an indication of something larger. “Our people run until they drop, ” Miller told Sports Illustrated. “And we played six or seven Americans on our side tonight. This game has got a hell of a future here.”
“I was as high as I’ll ever be”
If the celebrations of the Atoms players had been muted after the semifinal victory over Toronto, they were anything but that after victory in Dallas. Bob Rigby said later in a 1984 interview with Soccer Digest, “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.”
Even Coach Miller joined in the fun. When contacted by The New York Times after the win, an unnamed friend of Miller’s said that the NASL Coach of the Year was unavailable. “They are all drunk,” said Miller’s friend. “They’ve been drinking since Saturday night.”
When the Atoms landed back in Philadelphia, the Inquirer’s Dave Sims reported that there were “300-400 appreciative fans to welcome them at International Airport.”
Sims continued, “One enthusiastic buff, carrying a ‘Philadelphia Gets a Winner’ banner, gave team owner Tom McCloskey a bear hug.”
McCloskey said of the Atoms’ inaugural season championship, “I don’t think it’ll ever happen again. I think they’ll refer to this to show it can be done.”
Click here to link to the rest of the series and more articles on the Atoms.