Philadelphia Atoms: An Opportunity Wasted

By Steve Holroyd (soccermavn@yahoo.com)

The history of American professional soccer is littered with the carcasses of great expectations and squandered opportunities. Never has a sport seemed so intent on making sure that it never rises above cult status.

Generally, one can get a feel for U.S. soccer's sordid history by simply recounting the many leagues that have come and gone over the past 100 years: ALPF, NAFBL, ASL, ISL, EPSL, NAFL, NPSL, USA, NASL, USL, MISL--an alphabet soup of failure.

Ask a soccer fan, and they will tell you that America's golden opportunity to embrace the "world's game" came and went with the North American Soccer League. While this is debatable--the original American Soccer League of the 1920s was a much stronger and better-supported league--it cannot be argued that the NASL provides the most visible example today of how the sport can do so little with so much potential. And no team provides a better example in miniature of this insistence on failure than the Philadelphia Atoms. In the pantheon of great American clubs, the Atoms hardly rate a mention. They were not in a class of Bethlehem Steel or the Fall River Marksmen, two powerful sides from the 1920s. Their best years were prior to the arrival of Pelé to this country in 1975; as a result, they hardly warrant a mention as one of the great NASL teams, their championship in 1973 notwithstanding. Some would say they are not even the best team that their city ever produced, citing the string of American Soccer League championships won by the Philadelphia Nationals and Philadelphia Americans through the mid 1940s and early 1950s. But the Atoms were notable for a number of "firsts." Although the NASL's St. Louis Stars had used a predominantly American line-up for years, the Atoms were the first U.S. team to achieve glory with a team made up primarily of natives. They were present at the "big bang" of American indoor soccer. And they were American professional soccer's first bona fide sensation at the gate. The Philadelphia Atoms had provided a blueprint for all other American clubs to follow, combining grass roots appeal with attractive football to create a product that even the casual sports fan could follow and embrace. Alas, no other teams followed in the Atoms' wake; by the end, only three years after it had started, even the Atoms themselves had abandoned the blueprint.

Beginnings

It all started easily enough. Tom McCloskey was a successful construction magnate who was eager to get involved in professional sports. In particular, he was interested in purchasing a National Football League franchise. The hometown Eagles were not for sale, however, so McCloskey was forced to be a mere fan for awhile. Of course, having deeper pockets than your average fan, McCloskey could afford to linger on the fringes of the NFL's power base.

In 1973, McCloskey was in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl sporting eight friends, but zero tickets. Lamar Hunt, owner of the NFL's Kansas City franchise, learned of McCloskey's dilemma, and found nine tickets for him. The tickets would even be free of charge--sort of. You see, Hunt was also owner of the NASL's Dallas Tornado franchise, and was always on the lookout for new investors in the 4-year old league. So, dealing in a position of strength, Hunt casually asked McCloskey, "How would you like to have a soccer franchise in Philadelphia?" McCloskey, needing the tickets and quite able to take a hint, agreed to buy an NASL franchise. And so the Atoms were born.

Once back in Philadelphia, McCloskey realized he had about three months to get the team ready for a May 5 start date. With hardly a thought, McCloskey appointed Bob Ehlinger, a marketing vice-president with his firm, as general manager of the club. For his part, Ehlinger had no soccer experience whatsoever; his sports experience consisted of his 20 years as a college football official.

Ironically, the two men's total inexperience would prove advantageous. While "soccer men" might have hired some English veteran to put together a club, McCloskey and Ehlinger went to wear a professional football team would be more likely to go to get a coach--the college ranks. With nothing else to go by, they targeted a local boy. Al Miller had been an All-America soccer player at East Strousberg State in Pennsylvania, and was currently coaching a collegiate soccer powerhouse at Hartwick. To McCloskey and Ehlinger, he seemed a logical choice.

Miller himself was less than enthusiastic. He was all-too-familiar with the NASL's history of having exploded onto the American sports scene in 1967 (in the form of two separate leagues) before imploding into a five-team semi-pro circuit by 1969. As a result, he was dubious about his professional chances at first. However, Miller became convinced that McCloskey was worth taking a chance on after being impressed by the owner's breaking a window at his home while trying to kick a ball past his son. With not much ado, the Atoms had a coach.

Again, McCloskey and Ehlinger were inclined to use the American football model for franchise building, and concentrated on the upcoming NASL draft. Miller, who was more than happy to build an American squad, used the first pick overall in the 1973 draft to tab Bob Rigby, an outstanding goalkeeper from Miller's alma mater. The next round saw Miller draft Rider forward Bobby Smith. From Montreal he acquired Barry Barto, and from the New York Cosmos he grabbed former Penn All-American Stan Startzell. Rounding out the local connection, Miller signed Charlie Duccilli, holder of Temple University's career scoring record, and Casey Bahr of Navy, son of 1950 World Cup hero Walt.

Miller and his charges were dispatched to England to train, at Lilleshall. A dream facility, it was the training site for the English national team. By training in England, Miller hoped to impress his young Americans with a top-flight facility in a "real" soccer country. Also, it gave him the opportunity to fill out his squad with British players who played the fast-moving style Miller preferred. As the NASL played a summer schedule, a number of English players were available "on loan" to American clubs. Miller borrowed three Southport footballers--Andy Provan, Jim Fryatt, and Chris Dunleavy--and tried to make the best use of what little time he had to prepare for the 1973 season.

Meanwhile, back in America, the team was doing a remarkable job of marketing both itself and the sport. The team's nickname had been selected in a name-the-team contest, and the winner received an all-expenses paid trip to Wembley for the FA Cup Final. The press covered the team enthusiastically; no doubt aided by the fact that Philadelphia sports teams (with the exception of the NHL's Flyers) were a particularly wretched lot in the early 1970s, the media was anxious to glom on to any team that had a chance to be a winner. Add a local, American coach with his cast of local, American players, and it was clear that the papers had a story.

The bigger question was whether the fans would come.

1973

The Atoms opened their inaugural season in an inauspicious manner, falling to the Stars 0-1 on May 5 before 6,782 in St. Louis. Still, Coach Miller showed 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 league. It was significant, though, that this figure amounted to the highest total of Americans in NASL history. Also, by the time the season concluded, it would mark the first time in league history that any of the Yanks had any impact on the circuit.

St. Louis had been using a predominantly American line-up for years, and had not been able to draw fans. Skeptics around the league expected that the "Philadelphia Experiment" would also fall flat. The Atoms stunned the league, however, drawing a league-record 21,700 fans to its home opener on May 11. 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 club's 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, Dunleavy, 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 mark, a record that would stand for the rest of the NASL's history. On the other side of the ball, Andy "The Flea" 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.

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 players.

Indeed, 1973 was the North American Soccer League's "Year of the American," as natives contributed in a manner never seen before and not to be seen again in league history. Dallas rookie Kyle Rote, Jr. became the only American-born player to win the NASL scoring crown, using his ferocious heading ability to grab 10 goals and 10 assits for 30 points. Right behind him in the scorers' table was St. Louis Gene Geimer (10-5-25), a product of that city's fine youth program, and New York Cosmos first-round pick Joey Fink, who netted 11 goals. St. Louis midfielder Pat McBride also starred, joining Fink as a second team all-star. By the end of the year, the NASL would have an American as leading scorer (Rote), three Americans among the top 10 scoring leaders (Rote, Geimer, and Fink), and an American as its leading goalkeeper (Rigby).

The Atoms' tremendous run continued through the playoffs. At home before 18,766, Philadelphia trounced the Toronto Metros, 3-0, to earn a trip to the NASL Championship. Veterans Stadium sounded more like Wembley after the match, with fans singing Auld Lang Syne as they bid their team good luck in the final. The final itself was a perfect ending to the team's storybook season. Playing without Provan and Fryatt--both had been recalled by Southport for the start of the English season--Philadelphia thoroughly outplayed the heavily-favored Dallas Tornado. Chris Dunleavy--who was not recalled by Southport because of a suspension--blanketed Dallas' Kyle Rote, and the rest of the "No Goal Patrol" nullified the rest of the Tornado offense. Fittingly, it was an American who scored the winning goal: Bill Straub, getting his first start ever, tallied for Philadelphia. An own goal later made it 2-0, and Philadelphia won the 1973 North American Soccer League title. Fans in Philadelphia, watching the game on television via tape delay, were ecstatic. And it seemed as if sport's "next big thing" had finally arrived: Sports Illustrated declared "Soccer Goes American" on the cover of its September 3, 1973 issue, and Bob Rigby became the first soccer player ever to grace the magazine's cover.

1973: NASL Eastern Division 9-2-8 104 pts 29gf 14ga 1st place


1973 Leading Scorers and Goalkeepers

Player             GP     G     A    TP

Andy Provan        19    11     6    28
Jim Fryatt         18     7     3    17
Karl Minor         16     4     4    12
George O'Neill     17     1     9    11
Manny Schellscheidt14     1     4     6
 
Player             Min    GA    ShO  GAA
Bob Rigby          1157    8     6   0.62
Norm Wingert        553    6     1   0.98

1974

The city's love affair with its new champions continued into 1974. Having not won a championship since the Sixers' 1968 NBA title, the City of Brotherly Love was enjoying every minute of being a champion, even if it was in the North American Soccer League.

Al Miller, for his part, was eager to repeat as champion. He kept the core of his team together through the winter months, preparing for the 1974 season.

It was while preparing for the upcoming season that a unique opportunity presented itself. The Soviet Red Army soccer team toured the U.S. in the early winter of 1974, playing two indoor soccer matches. After crushing an all-NASL team in Toronto, the Russians challenged the defending champions to a match. Miller, eager to test his young charges against some top-flight competition, accepted the challenge.

Philadelphia's love for its new team, fueled by Cold War animosities, resulted in nearly 12,000 fans pouring into the Spectrum to view what was, essentially, a new sport. Although the Atoms fell to the Red Army, 6-3, the fans admired the team's gutty, gritty performance. Bob Rigby added to his newly-minted legend, making 33 saves and impressing the Soviet coach with his world-class performance. As fate would have it, the Atoms were present at the "birth" of American indoor soccer: Philadelphian Ed Tepper was present at the match, and was so impressed by what he saw that he set about forming what would become the Major Indoor Soccer League.

The momentum from the previous season carried over into 1974. Opening on May 1 in Washington, Andy Provan scored four goals in one half en route to a 5-1 drubbing of Washington in D.C. The Atoms' home opener drew an NASL record 24,093, and the club seemed well on its way to a second straight title, opening the season at 5-1.

Buoyed by the Atoms' 1973 success, the NASL expanded into to West Coast for the first time since 1968. Much to the league's pleasant surprise, fans in San Jose, Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle embraced their new clubs as rabidly as Philadelphians had welcomed the Atoms the year before. Crowds of 15,000 were not uncommon in San Jose, and Seattle regularly sold out its stadium. The league's patience over the past five years had finally paid off--a genuine, grass roots soccer movement had embraced the NASL.

On another front, however, the progress made in 1973 was not followed up on. Although six new teams were added to the circuit, very few bothered to recruit any Americans. Meanwhile, 1973's American heroes were relegated to bit players in 1974: while Kyle Rote returned with a respectable 7 goal season, New York's Joey Fink was relegated to reserve status. St. Louis' Gene Geimer only netted 2 goals during the year, although Denny Vaninger was second among Americans in goals scored with six.

Although Philadelphia's natives continued to perform well--Rigby would once again be named a second-team all-star--the club's fortunes soured after its fast start. The team would lose eight one-goal games en route to a disappointing 8-11-1 record, missing the playoffs. The fans remained loyal, however: Philadelphia averaged 11,784 for the year.

As disappointing as missing the playoffs had been, the worst blow to Philadelphia's fortunes occurred off-the-field: Tom McCloskey finally got his wish, and was awarded an NFL franchise in Tampa Bay. This, coupled with a general downturn in the construction industry, resulting in McCloskey's losing interest in his soccer team, and investing less money into it.

1974: NASL Eastern Division 8-11-1 74 pts 25 gf 25 ga 3d place 1974 Leading Scorers and Goalkeepers


Player              GP    G     A    TP
Andy Provan         20    9     3    21
Jim Fryatt          20    8     4    20
Karl Minor          20    3     2    8
Bobby Smith         20    1     4    6

Player              Min   GA    ShO  GAA
Bob Rigby           1800  22     3   1.10

1975

The Atoms began their 1975 season as they had with the previous one: by playing indoor soccer. This time, the team played in the inaugural NASL Indoor Tournament, facing off against St. Louis and Dallas in Dallas on January 24 and 26.

With his British stars in limbo--it was not clear whether McCloskey would spring for their return--Al Miller once again had to rely on home-grown talent. In the opener, backup keeper Norm Wingert made 18 saves as the Atoms beat St. Louis, 5-3. Among Philadelphia's goal scorers was 37-year old Walt Chyzowich, a star of the old Ukranian National and Spartans teams; within a few years he would be the U.S. National Team coach. Philadelphia was knocked out of the tournament, however, losing to Dallas, 6-2, before a national television audience.

The 1975 Atoms barely resembled the previous years' teams. First, a dispute with Southport resulted in two-time first team all-star Chris Dunleavy's not returning to the club. Dunleavy's Southport teammates Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt also would not be back, with the latter instead playing in Hartford. In one fell swoop, a good chunk of the team's identity was gone.

The fans still supported the team, at least at first; 13,821 fans attended the home opener and saw Bobby Smith score the match's only goal in a win over Miami. On June 10, over 20,000 saw the team defeat New York; however, unlike in the old days, when such a crowd would turn out for the Atoms, this crowd came to see the Cosmos' new star--Brazilian legend Pelé. Throughout the season, the team's poor performance on the field eventually wore the bloom away from the crowds. The late-season return of Jim Fryatt was too little, too late. Even with rookie Chris Bahr's 11-goal season, the fans had essentially lost interest in the team. Once again, the team missed the playoffs.

Bahr--the son of local hero Walt Bahr--won the NASL Rookie of the Year. Bobby Smith had his best season yet, becoming the first native-born American to be named a first-team NASL all-star.

Ironically, just as the NASL was taking off, its prototype franchise was fading away. The arrival of Pelé presaged the North American Soccer League's most successful years. However, the Philadelphia Atoms would not be there to see it.

1975: Eastern Division 10-22 90 pts 33 gf 42 ga 4th place

1975 Leading Scorers and Goalkeepers

Player              GP    G     A    TP
Chris Bahr          22   11     2    24
John McLaughlin     22    7     4    18
Bob Hope            20    4     6     14

Player              Min   GA    ShO  GAA
Bob Rigby           1803  31     4   1.59
Norm Wingert        397    9     0   2.04

1976

One of Pelé's demands, upon signing with the Cosmos, was that a team worthy of his talents be built around him. Long before the club acquired Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer, however, it set out to acquire the two best American players in the game. Needing cash, McCloskey sold Bob Rigby and Bobby Smith to New York for $100,000.

Other Atoms joined the exodus: Al Miller jumped to the Dallas Tornado, while his captain, Derek Trevis, took the player-coach position with San Diego Jaws. Chris Bahr was drafted as a kicker by the NFL Champion Pittsburgh Steelers; predictably, he opted for a pro football career.

McCloskey eventually sold the team to a Mexican group. A predominantly Mexican roster was compiled by new coach Jesus Ponce, with only token holdovers George O'Neill, Tom Galati, Barry Barto, and Bill Straub remaining from the glory days. Los Atomos moved to Franklin Field, and drew only 8,400 to the home opener. The club missed the playoffs for the third straight season; by season's end, the once-proud Atoms were placed in receivership.

1976: Eastern Division 8-16 80 pts. 32 gf 49 ga 4th place

1976 Leading Scorers and Goalkeepers

Player              GP    G     A    TP
Pedro Herrada       22    5     8    18
Belisario Lopez     24    5     5    15
Victor Perez        21    7     0    14
Juan Olague         17    4     2    10
George O'Neill      11    2     1    5

Player              Min    GA   ShO  GAA
Rene Vizcaino       2069   41    4   1.78
Jim Miller          187     4    0   1.93

Just as the rise of the Philadelphia Atoms should have provided a blueprint for the NASL to follow, so should its demise also have been noted. Unfortunately, the signing of Pelé and the arrival of other world-class superstars basically wiped out the grass-roots movement before it could bloom. Instead, "trendy" fans packed the stands, leading to a false sense of success. However, few American players graced NASL pitches.

With the mid-1970s boom, the NASL ignored its primary fan base, instead aiming for the lofty status of the National Football League. The circuit expanded too rapidly, embracing absentee owners with little interest in the development of the game. By 1984, it was all over. It would be 12 years before another Division One league would be established.

Fortunately, Major League Soccer teams tend to have more in common with the 1973 Atoms than the 1978 Cosmos--mostly American squads with a local flavor have been quite successful in the new league. When one considers that the Atoms had done it all 23 years earlier, however, one can only sense great frustration at all of the time wasted in between.


Last update: March 13, 1999

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