Philadelphia Soccer History

The day Philadelphia used the No. 1 overall pick to select a goalkeeper

Photo: Courtesy of nasljerseys.com

With the first overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, the Philadelphia Union selected goalkeeper Andre Blake out of the University of Connecticut.

Historically, the one thing the United States has been able to produce is quality goalkeepers. As a result, it is very rare to see one drafted with the number one overall pick in the draft.

Nevertheless, there was a sense of déjà vu with Thursday’s pick. The last time a goalkeeper was selected No. 1 overall was by a Philadelphia team — the expansion Atoms used the first pick in the 1973 North American Soccer League college draft to select a goalkeeper.  His name? Bob Rigby.

Yes, that Bob Rigby.

If you were paying any attention at all this summer, you will recall that the 1973 season turned out all right for the Atoms.

But you still may not know about the man. So now is as good a time as any to strip away your memories of Rigby as a color commentator and introduce you to someone who is a true American soccer legend.

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Bob Rigby starring with East Stroudsburg, 1972 (photo courtesy East Stroudsburg State University)

College All-American

Rigby — a native of Ridley Park — was a multi-sport athlete at Ridley High School, but made a name for himself playing soccer in the late 1960s. His goalkeeping exploits earned him a ticket to East Stroudsburg University — at the time a known soccer powerhouse, albeit at the NAIA level.  In 1962 the school won the NAIA soccer championship, defeating Pratt Institute (NY) 4-nil.

Rigby was a key figure for the Warriors. As a junior, he helped coach John McKeon’s side improve by three wins over the previous year’s total. It was during his senior year, however, that Rigby made a name for himself.

Leading the Warriors to a school-best 14-3-2 record, Rigby was named a first team All American at the close of the 1972 campaign.

Sports Illustrated cover boy

Given his notoriety as the best goalkeeper in the country, Rigby probably would have been the first pick overall in the 1973 NASL draft even if East Stroudsburg alum Al Miller was not the coach of the new Philadelphia franchise. As it is, Miller wanted to both build his team out of the back and build it with Americans, and Rigby was an ideal choice.

“Riggs” did not disappoint. Anchoring a back line that would be dubbed the “No Goal Patrol,” Rigby set NASL records in his rookie season for lowest goals against average (0.62) and fewest goals allowed (8) in a season while helping the team win the league title in its first year of existence. Incredibly, Rigby did not win the Rookie of the Year award, as the honor instead went to another American-born sensation, NASL leading scorer Kyle Rote, Jr. of Dallas. Just as incredibly, Rigby was not named a First Team All-Star, either — that honor went to another Dallas player, Ken Cooper (father of Kenny Cooper). Why was the Philadelphia netminder overlooked? Perhaps because he missed six games in the middle of the season with a severe knee injury (his replacement was Norm Wingert, father of Chris Wingert). Rigby could take some measure of solace in becoming the first ever soccer player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Bob Rigby looks on during the loss to Italy. (Photo: Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Bob Rigby looks on during the loss to Italy. (Photo: Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Indoor stardom and National Team Duty

In the winter of 1974, the Atoms faced off against the Soviet Red Army in an indoor soccer match at the old Spectrum. Although the home team lost, Rigby, who hurled himself all over the floor in stopping 33 of Red Army’s 39 shots, turned in an extremely impressive performance. Moscow coach Vladimir Agapov bestowed plenty of praise on the young American, saying “it is difficult to tell from one game, but on his performance tonight, I think he could handle himself on most any field in the world.”

Not surprisingly, Rigby soon found himself called up to the U.S. National Team. He earned his first cap on November 3, 1973, excelling in a 1-nil loss in Haiti. His second cap was earned 12 days later, playing the first half of a 2-nil loss in Israel (his replacement was a young New York Cosmos draftee named Bruce Arena).

Rigby continued to impress, providing many of his trademark acrobatic saves in a 1-nil loss to Mexico in Dallas on September 8, 1974. Incredibly enough, Rigby really sealed in legend in a 10-nil loss to Italy in 1975 — by all accounts, the score could have just as easily been 30-0 but for Rigby’s incredible performance. All told, Rigby earned 7 caps. If that number seems low, bear in mind two things. First, the U.S. did not play anywhere near the number of matches seen today. Second, even then, the U.S. was pretty deep in goal — Riggs shared the net with Mike Ivanow, Mike Winter, Shep Messing, and Arnie Mausser, among others. It was a crowded field.

Goalkeeper of the stars

Rigby played every minute of the 1974 season for Philadelphia, again earning Second Team All Star honors. He stayed with the club until 1975, and was then sold to the New York Cosmos prior to the 1976 season.

Before the start of the NASL season, the Cosmos — showing off their star player, Brazilian legend Pelé — embarked on an overseas tour. Rigby was once again extremely impressive, and was besieged with offers from European clubs.

Instead, he returned home with the Cosmos, and was producing the best work of his career (5 shutouts in 13 games) before having his collarbone broken by a foul from notorious goon Paul Cannell of Washington on June 27. The Cosmos acquired Shep Messing to replace Rigby, making him expendable.

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

Bob Rigby, the first soccer player ever to be featured on a Sports Illustrated cover, September 3, 1973.

Rigby was sold to the Los Angeles Aztecs prior to the 1977 season, joining another footballing legend, Northern Ireland’s George Best. He stayed with the club until halfway through the 1979 season, by which time he played with the incomparable Johan Cruyff of Holland.

In 1979, Rigby was traded back to Philadelphia, this time with the Fury. He moved with the team to Montreal after the 1980 season, and finished his career with the San Jose Earthquakes in 1985, playing in the Western Soccer Alliance after the demise of the NASL.

Too much, too soon?

For as great as he was from 1973 to 1976, it must be said that Rigby drifted into mediocrity for the remainder of his career. One wonders why.

Some might say he never recovered from the shellacking he received in 1977 and 1978 as goalkeeper for the Terry Fisher-coached Aztecs. The American-born former UCLA coach believed in all-offense, all-the-time, leaving Rigby exposed to dozens of counterattacks. His abysmal 2.46 (1977) and 2.18 (1978) goals against averages those two years certainly provide some evidence of shell shock.

Most might suggest, however, that Rigby was simply too talented an athlete, with too many interests, and that he burned himself out as a result. As Shep Messing wrote in his excellent memoir, The Education of an American Soccer Player (Bantam Press: 1978):

In the beginning, Riggs was the fastest rising star among [American goalkeepers]. He had it all: blond curls, blue eyes, straight teeth and incredibly quick hands. If the team owners ever conjured up a vision of the all-American prototype, it would have been Riggs. He was born to be on a Wheaties box…

He seemed to think he had to forge a lifestyle to match the way he threw himself around in goal.  A night out with Riggs could sideline you for a week. Not given to doing anything halfway, Riggs trained like a madman when he was invited to compete in ABC’s Superstars [am annual competition pitting athletes from different sports against each other. Kyle Rote Jr. won three of the first five outright; Rigby finished in 4th in 1976]. Trying to be the best in every event, he once spent four solid months just working with weights.  Another winter he took up ski racing and tore down killer mountainsides at heart stopping speeds. None of this helped his soccer. Don’t get me wrong. Riggs is still a good keeper. But if he channeled all that energy into one sport, he could have been the best.

All told, it must be said that the first goalkeeper to ever be selected with the first overall pick in a college draft had a great career. Here’s hoping Andre Blake is just as successful.

7 Comments

  1. Great stuff Steve. Thanks!

  2. Phil Naegely says:

    Love the history lesson

  3. great article, great timing
    thanks

  4. This was a very interesting read! Thank you for pulling this together.

  5. Great read, I didn’t grow up in the Philly area and my knowledge of Rigby’s career was pretty limited. I just may have to get that Messing book.

  6. james lockerbie says:

    MAN ITS a shame he didn’t work out as a commentator with all of that history. I wonder if he would have enjoyed another position with the Union like a like a Chris Albright team ambassador guy.

  7. Great article, thanks for this! It might be a bit inaccurate to say “Ridley Park” though, more like Ridley Township, Folsom to be exact. My dad and Bobby grew up across the street from one another 4 blocks from Morton Ave. and Ridley High.

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