By Steve Holroyd ([email protected]) with supplemental materials by David Litterer
Stephen Holroyd has compiled an excellent, comprehensive history of the history of soccer in Philadelphia. David Litterer has added on some supplemental material covering the years 1980 – present.
In 1884, the American Football Association was formed. The first governing body for soccer in the U.S., it was also the third to be formed outside of the British Isles. The next year, the AFA instituted the first cup competition, the American Cup. In the early years of the competition, Philadelphia sides such as Philadelphia Hibernians, Philadelphia Wanderers and West Philadelphia F.C. competed for the Cup, but without much success. The American Cup was dominated by New England and Northern New Jersey teams in its early years, with no Philadelphia team ever advancing as far as the final.
By 1894, soccer had grown in popularity to the point where it seemed that a professional league would be a viable option. Baseball had begun paying its players several years earlier, and professional soccer had proved to be quite popular in England. Meanwhile, the sport itself had continued to grow in the U.S., ceasing to be the exclusive province of immigrants and expanding beyond the eastern seaboard.
Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that the first individuals to express interest in forming a professional soccer league in the United States were men who had already pioneered professionalism in team sports. In August of 1894, six representatives of National League baseball clubs met in New York to announce the formation of the American League of Professional Football. A.A. Irwin, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, was named league president. Philadelphia was granted a charter franchise, along with Baltimore, Brooklyn, Boston, New York, and Washington.
As Philadelphia’s first professional soccer team, the Philadelphia Phillies would set the tone for many of the Quaker City teams that would follow them–a good idea poorly executed. Drawing on a number of English and Irish players, the soccer Phillies hoped to challenge for the league crown. Things got off to a good start when, in their first exhibition match, the Phils trounced Trenton 11-1 before a thousand people. Their second exhibition match found them defeating the Philadelphia Wanderers 3-1.
Brimming with optimism, the Phillies opened their season on October 6, 1894 before 500 people at the Philadelphia Base Ball Park (later known as the Baker Bowl), only to be crushed by New York, 5-0. Among the Phillies on the pitch was halfback Charlie Reilly, who, during the summer, played third base for the baseball Phillies. Reilly quickly became a fan favorite, along with the red-headed captain of the team, Montgomery.
Immediately after this match, Phillies coach A.A. Irwin (yes–he coached both the baseball and soccer teams) decided he needed some help, and signed former Sunderland fullback Davy Wilson. Before even arriving to America, Wilson was named the new captain of the team. However, he did not arrive in time to participate in the Phillies’ second match, which found them losing again to New York, 5-2. Weightman scored the first two goals in Phillies history.
It wasn’t until their fourth match that the Phillies finally nabbed a win, defeating the Washington Senators, 2-1, in spite of the loss of Davy Wilson to injury.
The ALPF did not finish its first season, though. Poor attendances, as well as the fear of a rival baseball league driving up operating costs come spring led to the owners cancelling the season in late October. The Phillies were 2-7-0 at the time, having managed to play the most games of any team in the league.
Although the league folded, the Phillies kept playing. In fact, Philadelphia’s team had a hand in re-establishing soccer as a college game, scrimaging the Princeton University team in November.
Although the ALPF had proved to be a flop, the game of soccer continued to grow. In early 1895, the National Association Foot Ball League was formed, made up of teams from the New York and northern New Jersey areas. It took 15 years for Philadelphia to get an organized league, but in 1910 the Allied American Football Association was formed. It wasn’t until two years later, however, that a semi-pro league to rival the National League was formed.
In 1912, the top clubs in the Philadelphia area formed the American League of Associaton Football Clubs of Philadelphia. Boys’ Club won the 1912-13 season title, with Philadelphia Electrics taking the title the following season.
In 1914, however, the American League received a huge boost. Bethlehem Steel, the top team in the United States, joined the American League. Featuring John Ferguson, Robert Millar, Neil Clarke, and James Ford, as well as James Campbell from the Tacony Club of Philadelphia, the Steelmen were without question the crème de la crème of American professional soccer. Bethlehem won the 1914-15 title, and proceeded to go undefeated in 1915-16 en route to a second title. This second crown was not easy, however; Victor A.C. suffered only one loss, and finished just one point behind Bethlehem.
Tired of the lack of competition, Bethlehem left the American League the following season, concentrating on American and U.S. Open Cup play. In 1917-18, however, Bethlehem joined the National Association Foot Ball League. Joining Bethlehem was Tacony Disston A.A., a top side in the Philadelphia league. The following year, Philadelphia Merchant Ship also fled the American League to join the NAFBL, finishing second to Bethlehem for the title that season.
With its top teams having migrated north, the American League of Association Football Clubs was hardly worth noting. However, Philadelphia would soon play a role in the powerful major league to come.
By 1920, there were several top semi-professional soccer leagues in the United States. The National Association Foot Ball League featured Bethlehem Steel, Robins Dry Dock, Todd Shipyard, and other powerhouses. The Southern New England Soccer League included Fall River, and the J&P; Coats team of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In St. Louis, the Major Soccer League included a number of top clubs. However, these top clubs were often forced to carry poor, ragtag minor league teams in their ranks, often disrupting schedules when they would fold midseason.
Wanting to establish a solid, major league, most of the country’s top teams formed the American Soccer League in 1921. Although St. Louis declined to participate, the ASL included Fall River United, J&P; Coats, New York F.C. (formerly Robins Dry Dock), and Todd Shipyards. Also included was a “new” franchise, Philadelphia F.C.
This Philadelphia club was not new at all, however. Instead, it was the powerful Bethlehem Steel club, playing under the Philadelphia aegis. For reasons that are not clear, Edgar and W. Luther Lewis decided to disband the Bethlehem Steel team and then re-sign most of the top players to the ASL Philadelphia club. In all likelihood, the two men decided that professional soccer would likely be more profitable in a major city like Philadelphia than it would in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. In any event, it was an exciting time for Philadelphia soccer. Levi Wilcox, soccer beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, breathlessly wrote “[w]ith the Bethlehem machine having disbanded, all of its players will sport the Philadelphia colors. Several players who have recently arrived from across the pond [i.e., from England and Scotland] have also been signed. These, together with the raft of star players signed by the Philadelphia F.C. should give the Lewis’ the opportunity of forming an aggregation that will make soccer history in this city.”
In all fairness to Wilcox, there was some reason to be excited. Bethlehem had gone 11-0-1 to win the 1920-21 NAFBL title, and returned with most of that club intact. Among the new Philadelphia stars was Harold Brittan, who had signed from Chelsea, as well as established stars John Ferguson, Dougie Campbell, and Tommy Fleming.
On September 10, 1921, Philadelphia F.C. played its first exhibition match at Disston Ball Park, located at State Road and Unruh Street. “Phillies Open Soccer Season With Victory” read the headlines after the professionals defeated an All-Philadelphia team, 5-0. Optimism ran high. “From what we have been able to ascertain regarding the Philadelphia F.C.,” wrote Levi Wilcox, “it is our firm opinion that it will prove one of the strongest elevens in the league. With the management having the pick of the great Bethlehem machine of last year together with the new importations, on paper the locals loom up as probable champions.”
Quickly dubbed by the local press “Phillies,” Philadelphia F.C. fulfilled all expectations, opening the season 10-0-2 before losing its first match on January 2, 1922. Philadelphia won the crown in 1921-22, finishing five points ahead of New York F.C. by virtue of a 17-3-4 record. In 24 games, the Phillies scored 72 goals (best in the league), while rookie goalkeeper Findlay Kerr headed up a defense which allowed only 36 goals (second best in the league behind New York). Brittan was the ASL’s leading scorer, netting 24 in only 17 games, with Tommy Fleming finishing third in the league with 15 markers. The Phillies played their home matches at the Northeast High Field at 29th and Cambria Streets. To give one an idea of how times have changed, reserved seats could be purchased for $.85, with general admission tickets going for $.35
Soon after the season, though, the Phillies were broken up Management, having lost money and disappointed by the lack of support from Philadelphians, sold off several top players to make ends meet. Tommy Fleming and John Ferguson were sold to J&P; Coats, and Harold Brittan was sent to the Fall River Marksmen. Ultimately, the team decided to return to Bethlehem, and would continue playing as Bethlehem Steel until its demise in 1930.
Philadelphia did not go unrepresented in the ASL for long, however. In 1922-23 a new club, again called Philadelphia F.C., entered the league. This club was its predecessor’s polar opposite, however, finishing dead last in 1922-23, next-to-last in 1923-24, last in 1924-25, next-to-last in 1925-26, and last in 1926-27. Truly an awful side, Philadelphia F.C. featured some colorful characters. In 1923-24, for example, the Philadelphians picked up Sammy Rudolph, a talented forward with the city’s Wolfenden Shore club. Rudolph promptly scored 5 goals in six games, and then quit. Rudolph returned two years later, scored a goal in his only game, and quit again.
Philadelphia was represented by two teams in the ASL in 1924-25, when Fleischer Yarn joined the league. Fleischer had won the United States Amateur Cup the previous spring, and hopes were high that Philadelphia would again have a contender for the league championship. The Yarnmen proved to be a disappointment, however, finishing 10th in the 12 team league. Forward Andy Straden acquitted himself well, however, scoring 20 goals. After the season, however, the team returned to the amateur ranks. Straden, for his part, joined the Shawsheen Indians before finishing his ASL career with the New York (soccer) Giants.
Philadelphia’s most disappointing year in the ASL was in 1927-28. After years of futility, the club was purchased by Fred McGuinness, a wealthy businessman. Signing several top Irish players, the team was renamed Philadelphia Celtic. However, the team promptly limped out of the gate, going 2-7-1 before being suspended by the league for financial problems.
A new Philadelphia F.C. entered the ASL in 1928-29, joining in October after Bethlehem Steel, Newark Skeeters and the New York Giants were all kicked out of the league as part of the “Soccer War” between the ASL and the USFA. Joining midway through the first half of the season, the new Philadelphia team quickly picked up where its predecessors had left off, and began losing. Although the league had switched to a split-season format by that year, Philadelphia still managed to post the worst record in the circuit, only winning 9 of its 36 matches.
Philadelphia managed to accomplish this in spite of fielding a fairly talented side. Freddie Wall scored 19 goals in 23 games to finish among the league leaders. Philadelphians had real cause for excitement, however, from the play of an exciting young player named Bert Patenaude. Born in Fall River, MA, Patenaude signed with Philadelphia prior to the season, and scored 6 goals in his first eight games. Inexplicably, however, Philadelphia sold him to the Fall River Marksmen prior to the second half of the ASL calendar. Patenaude would go on to be one of the league’s top all-time goal scorers, and would later record the first hat-trick ever in World Cup play while representing the U.S. National Team in 1930.
Philadelphia was again without a team in 1929. However, in mid-September, the Bridgeport Bears ASL franchise moved to Philadelphia, forming yet another Philadelphia F.C. franchise. Although Freddie Wall returned to score 4 goals in four games, the team continued to uphold Philadelphia tradition by holding last place at the time the league suspended play.
This is not to say the ASL folded. Rather, as a result of peace being declared in the “Soccer War,” Bethlehem Steel and the New York Giants rejoined the league, now renamed the Atlantic Coast League. Philadelphia was spared another last place finish, however, by virtue of the fact that Philadelphia F.C. was not asked to join.
The once-powerful ASL was on its last legs, anyway. The “Soccer War” had taken its toll, as had the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929. Although professional soccer was years ahead of its time by relying heavily on corporate sponsors like Bethlehem Steel, J&P; Coats and the like, the Depression resulted in most of these sponsors pulling out of the league. In spite of featuring many stars, both domestic and foreign, and having drawn crowds of 10,000 for some matches, the ASL simply could not compete with baseball and college football for the American sporting dollar. By 1933, the original ASL had folded. With it ended the Golden Age of American professional soccer.
As quickly as the original American Soccer League had folded, a second won took its place. This ASL, however, featured none of the top New England teams, and was basically a semi-pro operation made up of ethnic social clubs from New York and northern New Jersey.
Philadelphia entered this new league, and was represented by the Philadelphia Germans. In keeping with tradition, the Germans finished 5-6-2 to finish in last place in the new circuit in 1933-34.
Surprisingly, however, the Germans rebounded in 1934-35, and won the league championship. Led by league-leading scorer Robert Deal’s 11 goals, Philadelphia ran away with the league, going 18-3-1 en route to finishing 11 points ahead of second place New York.
The Germans did not successfully defend their crown, slipping down to a mediocre 10-5-5 in 1935-36. The following season, a second Philadelphia team was added to the league. Passon Phillies joined the loop, finishing in the middle of the table. Neither the Germans nor Passon would challenge for the league crown, although Bert Patenaude returned to Philadelphia to lead the ASL in scoring with Passon in 1938-39, netting 24 goals.
One bright spot on the soccer landscape was the Philadelphia Germans winning the U.S. Open Cup in 1936, sweeping the legendary Billy Gonsalves and the St. Louis Shamrocks in a two-game series.
Throughout these years, Kearny Scots of New Jersey ran off an unprecedented five straight championships. Before that Newark suburb could lay claim to being “Soccer City U.S.A.,” however, Philadelphia would present a serious challenge in the years after World War II.
Although the Philadelphia Germans had managed a second-place finish in 1940-41, and had won the ASL’s Lewis Cup, they were not known as one of the league’s most successful clubs. Now, with hostilities in Europe reaching a fever pitch, the team’s very nickname had become extremely unfashionable. In keeping with the patriotic fervor sweeping the nation, the Germans became the Philadelphia Americans. Meanwhile, Passon Philllies changed its name to the far-less-ethnic Philadelphia Nationals. As fate would have it, these two teams would dominate the professional soccer landscape for the next fifteen years.
During that period, the A’s and Nats split the ASL crown between them 11 times. The Americans won the first crown in 1941-42, going 12-5-2 in the process. Although finishing in thrid the following year, the Americans managed to win the Lewis Cup. The A’s won their second title in 1943-44, led by league-leading scorer Dean Nanoski’s 22 goals. The Americans again won the championship in 1946-47 and 1947-48. Joe Mervine won the ASL MVP award in 1946-47 while leading the A’s to their third crown.
Initially, the Nationals were the weak sisters in the city, much like the baseball Phillies were forced to play in the shadow of the American League’s A’s during their championship years. The Nats finished next-to-last in 1941-42, and repeated that standing in 1942-43. The next year, though, the club had climbed to third place, and had formed a heated rivalry with the cross-town Americans.
The Nationals had slipped again in 1945-46, a year that saw both Philadelphia teams finish near the cellar. Moreover, the Nats did not fare much better the following two seasons.
However, the Nationals were in the process of building a very special team. Coach Jimmy Mills, along with the Fairhill Club of Philadelphia, the long-time sponsors of the Nats, had brought on board the best players in the area. Incredibly, at a time when the sport was totally dominated by foreign players (as, indeed, soccer in the U.S. would be for years to come), the Nationals put together an all-American lineup, consisting almost entirely of players born and raised in the U.S.
By 1948-49, the Nats’ roster included players such as Eddie McIlveney (a Scot and the only non-citizen on the roster), Benny McLaughlin, Tommy Oliver, and a brilliant midfielder from Kensington named Walt Bahr. Bahr was the runner-up in league MVP voting in 1948, and looked set to blossom into a superstar. However, the team’s superiority was iced when five players signed on from the defunct Baltimore Americans franchise.
Early in the 1948-49 season, however, it looked like more of the same for the Nationals, who were quickly mired in last place. In mid-October of 1948, however, the Nationals embarked on a thirteen game winning streak, catapulting them from worst-to-first.
The Nationals first title came, incredibly enough, on the basis of a corner kick. A three-way tie for first necessitated a playoff between the Nationals, New York Americans, and Brooklyn Hispano. Philadelphia received a bye based on goal differential, and ultimately faced New York in the final, played in New York. The two teams played to a 3-3 tie over ninety minutes before both teams had to leave the field to make way for a match between Belfast Celtic and another visitng international club. After that match, the New York and the Nats again took the field, with neither side scoring. The game was called a draw, with Philadelphia being awarded the title by virtue of a corner kick difference of one.
The Nats also took the ASL’s Lewis Cup that year, and just missed completing a rare soccer “triple crown” by losing in the U.S. Open Cup final to Morgan S.C. of Pittsburgh. After winning the first leg of the two-game final 1-0, the Nats fell apart in the second match, going down 4-2 and losing on aggregate goals.
Still, the Nationals had announced their arrival. Bahr again finished second in MVP voting, with fellow Nats McLaughlin and Oliver following right behind him. Oliver was the league’s second leading scorer, with 16 goals.
The Nationals repeated as champions in 1949-50, going 12-3-1 to easily win the crown. Philadelphia even managed to make itself felt on the international scene that year: Bahr and Eddie McIlveney were on the field for the U.S. National Team in the 1950 World Cup, and both played a part in the U.S.’s stunning upset of England in that tournament. Bahr, in fact, assisted on the game’s only goal.
The Nationals made it three in a row in 1950-51, and added another Lewis Cup title to their trophy case. Nationals forward Nick Kropfelder led the ASL in scoring with 17 goals.
Meanwhile, there was still another team in the city. Although the A’s had been little more than bystanders during the Nationals’ great run, the Americans returned as league champions in 1951-52, winning the title by one point over their cross-town rivals. The Nationals redeemed themselves somewhat by winning another Lewis Cup, however. Once again, though, the Nationals found themselves as U.S. Open Cup runners-up, again losing a two-game series on total goals after winning the first match.
The Nationals returned with a vengeance in 1952-53, going 10-2-2 to easily win the regular season title. However, in the Lewis Cup tournament, the Nationals lost the Cup to Newark Portuguese, losing the first match 3-0 and falling just short on aggregate goals after rallying to take the second game, 3-1.
The glory days for Philadelphia soccer would suffer a severe blow, however. Plagued by dwindling finances, the Philadelphia Nationals folded four games into the 1953-54 campaign. Incredibly, the Philadelphia Americans were about to do the same. However, local trucking magnate Tony Uhrik purchased the club. Renaming them Uhrik Truckers, the team would finish in the basement in 1954.
Perhaps the trauma of nearly folding caused the team to play so poorly. In any event, Uhrik picked up several ex-Nationals stars, strengthening the club considerably, and the Truckers rebounded to win the 1954-55 ASL title by one point over Brooklyn Hispano. Trucker Jack Ferris led the league in scoring with 20 goals, and was named the league’s MVP.
The Truckers won a second ASL title the following season, routing Elizabeth (NJ) Falcons in the final, 5-1. The Philadelphia club just missed a “three-peat” the following year, as the Truckers finished in second to New York Hakoah. Truckers star Jack Oliver won the MVP award, however.
By 1957-58, the Truckers had slipped considerably, finishing in the middle of the pack. As a last hurrah, the team rebounded to win a Lewis Cup title that season. The Truckers would continue until the 1963-64 season before folding, never again challenging for an ASL title. Still, Philadelphia’s glory days were far from over, as a new team from the city entered the ASL in 1957-58 and promptly took the soccer world by storm.
In 1957-58, Philadelphia was granted yet another franchise in the American Soccer League. The Ukrainian Nationals made a splash immediately upon their arrival, sitting at the top of the league table as late as April of 1958 before being overtaken by New York Hakoah. The “Ukes,” as they were known, also had to finish in second for the Lewis Cup, losing a two-game series to cross-town rivals Uhrik Truckers on a 4-3 aggregate. In spite of finishing second in both league and cup play, the Ukes swept the post-season awards, with Walter Kudenko being named MVP and coach Wassyl Borak earning the ASL Coach of the Year award.
As names like “Ukrainians” and “Hakoah” would indicate, the ASL had devolved into a semi-pro, ethnic league. Long-time clubs like Brooklyn Wanderers, New York Americans, and the 1940s Philadelphia clubs had been replaced with teams named “Pompei,” “Galicia,” “Portuguese,” and “Italians.”
Even if little more than a social club team, the Ukrainian Nationals would dominate U.S. soccer in the 1960s. In 1958-59, the Ukes again had to settle for second in the league behind New York Hakoah, but at least could take comfort in having won their first Lewis Cup. Goalkeeper Juri Kulishenko’s outstanding play earned him the ASL MVP Award.
Fittingly, American soccer’s team of the 1960s began its championship run in the 1959-60 season. Although again finishing as league runner-up–this time to a new club, Columbo–the Ukes defeated the Los Angeles Kickers 5-2 to win their first U.S. Open Cup title. Mike Noha scored all five goals for the Ukes in one of the most impressive scoring feats in U.S. soccer history. Once again, the Ukes swept the ASL’s post-season honors, with Andy Racz being named league MVP and coach Walter Medusha getting the club’s second Coach of the Year award in three years. Also, Noha led the league in scoring, with 22 goals.
Picking up right where they left off at the conclusion of the 1960 season, the Ukrainian Nationals continued to cut a wide swath through United States professional soccer, dominating both league and U.S. Open Cup play to earn the “double” in 1960-61. From the opening tap on October 2, 1960, the Ukes took firm control of the American Soccer League schedule, jumping into first place and going wire-to-wire with the lead. En route to their first-place finish, the Ukes went undefeated, with only two draws marring a perfect season. While doing so, the Ukes stetched their two-year ASL unbeaten string to 23 wins and 4 draws, a league record.
The Ukes dominated opponents on both sides of the ball. Herman Niss (league leading goal scorer with 17 tallies), Ricardo Mangini, and league MVP Mike Noha contributed to the club’s league-leading sixty goals scored, while goalkeeper Al Didriksen anchored the ASL’s stingiest defense. Ironically, Philadelphia’s other club, Uhrik Truckers, had become the league doormats, finishing 1-12-1.
Besides overwhelming the league competition, the Ukrainian Nationals also stormed their way to a second consecutive U.S. Open Cup. Manager Marion Kozeniowski’s lads continued a string of dominance dating back to October of 1959, going unmolested though the early rounds and storming their way to the Open Cup final. Against Los Angeles Scots, the Ukes drew 2-2 out west, relying on two markers from Stan Dlugosh, before returning home and trouncing L.A. 5-2 before 6,000 fans at LaSalle Stadium on June 25. Herman Niss scored a hat-trick, while Dlugosh and Carl Yakovino added one goal each.
The 1961-62 season saw the Ukes again with the ASL crown, finishing well ahead of second-place Inter-Brooklyn Italians. The Philadelphia would win two more ASL titles, winning four in a row during that span. The Ukes also won the title in 1968. Uke Ismael Fereyra led the league in scoring in 1962-63 with 14 goals, and teammate Walter Chyzowych led the circuit the following season with 15 goals. George Bertic led the ASL in scoring in 1966-67, scoring 24 goals for the Ukes.
The Ukrainian Nationals continued to assert their dominance on the national level, as well. The Ukes won the 1963 U.S. Open Cup, edging Los Angeles Armenian 2-1. The Ukes lost in the finals the next year, as Los Angeles Kickers avenged their 1960 defeat. The Ukes would win another Cup in 1966, blanking Orange County in two games.
Although the Ukes won the 1968 ASL Championship, this 1966 U.S. Open Cup would really prove to be the team’s last hurrah. Ironically, however, just as the Ukes were winding down, a new professional soccer league arrived to try–yet again–to make the sport a major one in the U.S.
The 1966 World Cup was a huge success, even in the U.S., were a tape-delayed telecast of the final drew encouraging TV ratings. As a result, not one but two new leagues began play in 1967. One, the National Professional Soccer League, included a team in the Quaker City–the Philadelphia Spartans.
Playing at Temple University Stadium, the Spartans were a veritable United Nations of players. Former Uke Walt Chyzowych played along side Brits Peter Short and John Best and Argentinian Ruben “The Hatchet” Navarro. Amid much hype and promise, the Spartans defeated Toronto 2-0 in their first match, with Short scoring both goals before a home crowd of 14,163. The team only drew 4,815 to its next match, however, and averaged a mere 5,261 over the course of its 16 matches.
The Spartans were a very good club, however, and finished with a 14-9-9 record, tied with Baltimore for first place in the Eastern Division. However, due to a controversial “bonus points” system for goals scored, Baltimore was awarded first place and the chance to play in the NPSL final.
Navarro–who replaced coach John Szep during the season and assumed the dual role of player/coach–was named by The Sporting News the NPSL MVP. Fellow Argentinian Orlando Garro led the team in scoring, with 11 goals. Goalkeeper Gernot Fraydl anchored the league’s second-best defense.
After the season, the NPSL and its competitor, the United Soccer Association, merged to form the North American Soccer League. Philadelphia would not be a part of this league, however, as the owners folded up the club after losing over $250,000. Instead, the team joined the American Soccer League in 1969, after a year off to recoup finances. Although winning no titles, the team did provide the ASL with leading scorers Juan Paletta (league leader in 1970 with 6 goals) and Charles Duccilli (11 goals in 1971).
By the 1970s, however, it appeared that professional soccer in Philadelphia was a thing of the past. 1970 saw the Ukrainian Nationals win their sixth and last ASL title before folding up for good. The Spartans competed until 1972, advancing to the ASL semi-finals before being knocked out of the playoffs. In 1973, a new Philadelphia Ukrainians attempted to relive old glories, but folded after one mediocre season.
Ironically, that same year saw the birth of a team who would not only revive the fortunes of Philadelphia soccer but also do much to save the professional sport in the United States–the PHILADELPHIA ATOMS.
The push to bring major league professional soccer back to the United States in 1967 had resulted in one failure after another. First, two leagues competed for what was a limited market in the first place that year, and almost bled each other to death. In 1968, the two leagues merged to form the North American Soccer League. However, the fans continued to stay away in droves: the league averaged only 3,400 fans a match, well short of the 20,000 required to break even.
Just two months after the 1968 championship match, nearly every team in the league folded. As the 1969 season arrived, only Kansas City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Dallas, and St. Louis remained.
Under the patient hand of Commissioner Phil Woosnam, the NASL slowly crept back to life. Teams were added, and the league managed to stay alive. However, the league was still little better than the old ASL. Dominated by foreigners, only the St. Louis Stars bothered fielding American players in what was, ostensibly, an American league. And there was still little fan support. Although the league had added the New York Cosmos to its roster in 1971, it was still housed primarily in second-tier cities like Atlanta, Rochester, and Miami. There was not much interest in any of the other major markets.
In fact, there were no plans for the NASL to expand in 1973. However, an interesting series of events transpired to bring about a new team in Philadelphia. By the time the season was over, the North American Soccer League turned its fortunes around 180 degrees, and was on its way to becoming a successful major-league circuit.
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, for the sum of $25,000, the Atoms were born.
McCloskey was no novice to sports ownership. He had previously owned the old Philadelphia Ramblers of the Eastern Hockey League, and had been president of the Liberty Bowl just before it left the city. This time around, he wanted to run a successful franchise, and put his mind to ensuring that his new soccer team would be just that.
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 where 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 Stroudsburg 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. 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 1971 ASL leading scorer with the Philadelphia Spartans, and Casey Bahr of Navy, son of 1950 World Cup hero and former Philadelphia Nationals star Walt Bahr.
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 were 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.
Al Miller, in particular, proved to be very popular with the Philadelphia media. He told the media what it was like growing up in the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Ono, Pennsylvania, a town that supposedly got its name at the first town meeting, when everyone kept saying “Oh no!” to the names being suggested. Other stories included his childhood nickname of “Little Bosh,” taken from the Pennsylvania Dutch term for “turnip,” and his attending school in a schoolhouse where all eight grades were taught in the same room. While seemingly insignificant, Miller possessed an element sorely lacking in a sport dominated by foreigners–all-American roots.
Clearly, Miller and McCloskey had been successful in wooing the press to their side. Now, the bigger question was whether the fans would come to the games.
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 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 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, but 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, after a parade of 3,000 youngsters in full soccer dress welcomed the team. 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. 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, 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.
Andy Provan, in particular, exemplified much of what Philadelphians love in their athletes. Nicknamed “The Flea” because of his stature (5’5″, 140 pounds) and leaping ability, Provan established his reputation with the fans in his 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, who was the 1972 NASL Most Valuable Player. Looking straight into Horton’s beard, Provan slapped the big Bermudian, starting a fight that saw both players ejected. The scrappy Provan immediately established himself as a fan favorite in the Bobby Clarke mold.
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 assists 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. In the other semifinal, the Dallas Tornado squeaked by the New York Cosmos (who made the playoffs as a “wild card” under the NASL’s new three division format), 1-0, on a header goal by Rote. With the win and superior record, Dallas had the pleasure of playing host for the final. More importantly, Dallas got to pick the date of the game.
Dallas General Manager Joe Echelle picked August 25, which just happened to be the day that the Atoms’ two scoring stars–Provan and Fryatt–were due back to start their season in England with Southport. Fortunately for the Atoms, Philadelphia’s third Southport player on loan–Chris Dunleavy–had been suspended in England, so he could stay for the final. However, as a result of the choice, Dallas also lost two starting forwards, Ritchie Reynolds and Nick Jennings, and fullback John Collins, who had to return to their club, Portsmouth. Relationships with the English League being what they were at the time (the “loan” system was under heavy fire in England), there was no chance of the players being able to stay for the final.
With Provan and Fryatt gone, Miller had to fiddle with his lineup. He put six native-born Americans in as starters, including Bill Straub, who had been acquired from Montreal during the season and had not played a minute for the Atoms. Although primarily a defender, Straub started on the front line.
Philadelphia proved it was the readier team; from the start, it showed the 18,824 fans in attendance who was in charge. Most of the first half was played in Dallas’ end of the field; the rest of it was in midfield. The shots Dallas got at Rigby were few and far between, and, for all his leaping ability and advantage in size, Rote found Dunleavy wrapped around him like an overcoat.
Philadelphia got its break 20 minutes into the second half, when Dallas center back John Best (ironically, a star with the old Philadelphia Spartans) accidentally cleared a dangerous Philadelphia pass into his own team’s net for an ‘own goal’. In the last five minutes, Straub netted a header to clinch the victory.
Philadelphia became the first expansion team to win a championship in its first year in any professional league. Fans in Philadelphia, watching the game on television via tape delay, were ecstatic. Further, 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.
Thanks to the Atoms, the NASL had in one year gone from a moribund, barely surviving enterprise to one with a shiny future. Support popped up across the country for the game, and the NASL would expand to the West Coast for the first time since 1968.
Philadelphia’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 the home of a champion, even if it was only the North American Soccer League title.
Al Miller, for his part, was eager to repeat as champion. In recognition of his abilities, he assumed the dual role of coach and general mananger with the amicable departure of Bob Ehlinger. More importantly, he was well aware of the impact his primarily-American squad was having on the league, and the sport as a whole in the United States. Aware of the extra responsibilities that came with being the flagship franchise of the league and the standard-bearers for American soccer, Miller kept the core of his team together through the winter of 1973-74, preparing for the upcoming season.
One result of Miller’s keeping his side together during the winter (an extreme rarity at that time) was the Atoms’ presence at the birth of a new American sport: indoor soccer.
Indoor soccer had been played in various forms in the United States since the turn of the century. In fact, the second American Soccer League had staged several indoor tournaments in the 1940s and 1950s, including a tournament in 1958 which saw an all-Philadelphia final: Uhrik Truckers of Philadelphia defeated the cross-town Ukrainian-Nationals, 11-9, before 14,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
However, the indoor game as it is now known did not really come into existence for almost another twenty years. Essentially, the birth of the modern indoor game in America can be traced to February 1974, when the North American Soccer League staged two indoor exhibitions against the touring Red Army of Moscow club. The first game, played on February 7 in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, found the Soviets steamrollering a patchwork NASL All-Star team 8-4. Incidentally, Atoms George O’Neill and Barry Barto represented Philadelphia on the all-star team. It is the second exhibition, however, which is generally acknowledged as the “big bang” of professional indoor soccer in the United States.
As the defending champions, the Atoms were scheduled to play the second game against the Red Army squad. The Soviets would be the best team the Atoms had faced to date, featuring world-class players like goalkeeper Leonid Shmuts; defender Nikolay Kiselev, midfielders Marian Plakhetko, Vladimir Fedotov, and Vladimir Kaplichnyi; and forward Vladimir Dudarenko. As a result, the game wound up being more than a simple demonstration of a “new” sport: it would be a test of American soccer, particularly since the Atoms were a mostly American side.
Miller, recognizing this, did not treat the game as a mere exhibition; he welcomed the opportunity to test his side against top, international competition. “The Red Army is definitely the best team the Atoms have ever faced,” Miller said. “If we were to beat them, it would be a tremendous upset…they play high class competition year ‘round. They are world-ranked, and are very fast and extremely tenacious.” Miller put his club through lengthy physical conditioning programs in preparation for the match, stating “I don’t want any of the Atoms to fall by the wayside because he isn’t fit enough to keep up with the Russians.”
Miller knew exactly what he was up against, having had the misfortune of being the coach of the select squad that was trounced by Red Army in Toronto. With the Atoms’ two top scorers (Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt) and three-quarters of its starting defense (Chris Dunleavy, Roy Evans and Derek Trevis) playing in England at the time, Miller wisely “borrowed” four all-stars from the select squad. Joining the Atoms for the match were Paul Child (from the defunct Atlanta franchise), Harvard-educated Alex Papadakis (also from Atlanta), Dick Hall (Dallas), and Jorge Siega (New York). Among the regulars filling out the Philadelphia roster were fellow indoor select members O’Neill and Barto, along with Bobby Smith, Bill Straub, and Sports Illustrated cover boy Bob Rigby.
On February 11, the two teams met in Philadelphia at the Spectrum, a hockey arena, with Astroturf covering the ice surface for the occasion. The game itself was played on a field the size of a hockey rink, with goals 4’ by 16’. The match was played in three 20 minute periods, allowed free substitution, and featured six man sides (five field players and a goalkeeper). The curiosity factor of a “new” game, coupled with the presence of the extremely popular Atoms against a Soviet team during the ultra-competitive Cold War era led 11,790 fans to the arena that night. They were not disappointed: the Atoms held an early 1-0 lead, lost it, then kept rallying to tie until the score was 3-3 with about 17 minutes left to play. Then–Miller’s emphasis on conditioning notwithstanding–the locals faded and the Soviets hammered home three quick goals, giving them a 6-3 victory. The Russians were impressive. “Their movement without the ball was a thing to behold,” Miller said after the match. “They were constantly putting pressure on the defenders, and it literally wore us down.” Ersatz Atoms Siega and Child also had good nights, collecting all three Atoms’ goals between them. The real highlight of the evening, however, was the remarkable play of Rigby, who added to his newly-minted legend by hurling himself all over the floor in stopping 33 of Red Army’s 39 shots. 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.”
In spite of his side’s gutsy performance, Miller was disappointed with the result. “I thought it was important for us to win,” he said. “It would have helped us not only here [in America] but around the world. Russia is one of the best soccer countries in the world. They’re real big time.” While Miller may have been upset with the final score, he could take some consolation from the fact that the press were positive in their review of the final product.
From a purely soccer point of view, this match demonstrated several things. First, it was a sport that Americans could play: the Atoms, who even outdoors started six Yanks at a time when other teams would use only one or two, were almost entirely composed of Americans that night, as their foreign stars were home playing in England. In spite of this “handicap,” the club performed extremely well. Red Army coach Agapov acknowledged the skill demonstrated by the Americans, saying “when it was 3-3, they were playing on our level, and they were inspired.” Also, as it was a “new” game, incorporating elements of hockey and, to a lesser extent, basketball, the Americans were able to remain competitive, as their experience at those games compensated for their lack of “traditional” soccer skills. In addition, the fact that the indoor game only used six players at a time allowed the American team to overcome the general lack of depth that afflicted most outdoor teams attempting similar all-American lineups (for example, the NASL’s St. Louis Stars of the early 1970s). Another important factor is that indoor soccer players–Americans in particular–did not suffer from an inferiority complex when compared with their foreign counterparts; while the Russians played it seriously, other countries only dabbled in the game. As a result, there were none of the inevitable comparisons to Pelé, for example, that outdoor footballers had to endure. Finally, indoor soccer, with its obvious connections to hockey and basketball, was a game easily understood by the American fan: with its high scoring and fast pace, it made for an entertaining evening.
It was this last feature which caught the attention of Ed Tepper. Tepper was among the nearly 12,000 in attendance that night. However, he was more interested in the Astroturf than the game–at the time, he owned the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League, and had gone to the match mainly to investigate the viability of artificial turf on the hockey surface (the Wings played their games on plywood). Instead of the turf, however, it was the spectators’ enthusiastic response which caught Tepper’s attention: “At that moment I knew indoor soccer was the right game for the future,” he later remembered. For the time being, though, Tepper’s idea for some kind of organized, professional indoor game would remain just that.
Meanwhile, Miller had to continue preparations for the 1974 outdoor campaign. In the first round of the 1974 college draft, the Atoms selected Tom Galati, a talented defender out of the renowned St. Louis youth program. Miller also signed local star Juan Paletta, a dangerous striker from Argentina who had led the American Soccer League in scoring in 1970 with the Philadelphia Spartans. Two other local signings included Skip Roderick, a free agent from the Delco youth program by way of Elizabethtown College, and Joe Luxbacher from Beadling, Pennsylvania. Miller was particularly thrilled with the acquisition of Luxbacher, a Pitt graduate who came to the team’s tryouts in March on his own and was impressive enough to make the club. Miller went so far to describe Luxbacher as “the future replacement for Jim Fryatt.”
That future almost arrived much sooner than planned. Difficulties in the Atoms’ relationship with Southport delayed any commitment regarding Andy Provan (the runner-up in the 1973 MVP voting) and Jim Fryatt until well into 1974. After a few anxious moments, however, both were signed for the new season. One all-star who did not return, however, was Roy Evans. Now a regular starter with Liverpool, the English club would not release Evans for the summer season in light of his new importance.
Even amid the early uncertainty, however, Miller did not opt for an obvious answer. Strangely, although he was also a free agent and had played for the Atoms in the indoor match, Philadelphia did not sign Paul Child, one of the leading scorers in North American Soccer League history. In fairness to Miller, however, it is likely that he was comfortable with his scorers, what with the addition of Paletta complimenting the returning Provan and Fryatt.
Instead, Child signed with the San Jose Earthquakes, one of several new expansion teams. In the wake of the Atoms’ success, the NASL expanded to the West Coast for the first time since 1968. As the season progressed, fans in San Jose, Vancouver, Portland and Seattle would embrace their clubs as rabidly as Philadelphians had embraced the Atoms a year earlier.
On the pitch, the momentum from the Atoms’ magical first season carried over into 1974. In the season opener against Washington, Andy Provan scored four goals in one half en route to an easy 5-1 victory. Two games later, the Atoms opened their home schedule before a record crowd of 24,093 in a 1-0 win over Denver. The Atoms cruised through the month of May, opening the season 5-1 and leading the Eastern Division. With Provan scoring six goals during that span, and Fryatt adding another four, it appeared that Philadelphia would cruise to a second title.
In the warmth of the summer, however, the Atoms’ goalscorers suddenly turned cold. The Atoms would be shutout in five of their next six games. Provan would score only three more goals the rest of the year, and Fryatt would net only another four. With the Atoms’ two big guns shut down, and Paletta proving to be a major disappointment, the Atoms simply could not put the ball in the back of the net. Defensively, the club remained solid, with rookie Galati doing a fine job of replacing the departed Evans. In spite of the continuing outstanding play of Rigby and the “No Goal Patrol,” however, Philadelphia lost too many 0-1 and 1-2 games for its own good. Ironically, Paul Child went on to lead the league in scoring, netting 15 goals for San Jose. Philadelphia also suffered from a rules change. Unlike in 1973, games tied after 90 minutes of regulation were now settled with a penalty-kick shoot-out. The Atoms finished an unlucky 1-3 in such shootouts.
In spite of continuing strong fan support–the Atoms averaged 11,784 fans per game–the team missed the playoffs by over twenty points. Although struggling on the field, the Atoms remained committed to developing American talent: ten natives dotted the Philadelphia roster, four of whom were regular starters (Rigby, Smith, Galati and Barto), with Bill Straub and forward Bobby Ludwig appearing regularly as second-half substitutes.
While not a good year for the Atoms, the NASL could at least claim a solid 1974. The league’s patience over the past five years had at last paid off, and a genuine, grass-roots soccer movement had embraced the game. Many of the West Coast teams had outdrawn even the Atoms, with crowds of 15,000 not uncommon in San Jose, and Seattle regularly selling out its stadium. Los Angeles, another new team, won the NASL title that year, defeating Miami in a game televised by CBS.
Playing every minute of every match, Bob Rigby was again named a second-team NASL all-star. Joining him on the second team was team captain/assistant coach Derek Trevis. Chris Dunleavy was named a first-team all-star for his outstanding play.
On October 30, 1974, Philadelphia Atoms owner Tom McCloskey realized his long-time dream: he was awarded the new Tampa Bay franchise, to begin play in 1976. Soon after the announcement, however, McCloskey renounced the ownership of the team.
The Atoms entered 1975 the same way they had entered the previous year: by playing indoor soccer. In the wake of the success of the two Soviet exhibitions, the North American Soccer League began exploring indoor soccer’s potential as an organized game. Among other things, the indoor game was expected to increase fans’ interest in the game as a whole. Not incidentally, it would also enable owners to generate additional revenues from players they already, for the most part, had under contract.
After the Soviet exhibitions, the NASL staged an indoor tournament in 1975. Sixteen teams participated in this affair, which was divided into four regional tournaments, with the winners meeting in San Francisco for the overall title in a format similar to the NCAA’s college basketball tournament. The regions consisted of four teams each. In the regionals, two teams would play each other, and then winners would play losers in a two game series. The team with the best record advanced to the national semifinals; in the event of teams having identical records, the side with the best total goal differential advanced to the nationals.
Atoms coach Al Miller had long realized indoor soccer’s potential as a developmental tool for American players, and his Atoms gladly participated in the tournament. Philadelphia was placed in a group with Dallas, Toronto and St. Louis, and the first regional commenced in Dallas’ Fair Park Arena on January 24. The matches were played under the same rules as the Philadelphia-Red Army match, with the three periods being shortened to 15 minutes each.
Philadelphia was scheduled to meet St. Louis in the opening match. Prior to the match, Miller had stated that his team should not be favored, as he was using mostly young American kids and would have to play “the American way–plenty of scrap and hustle–to overcome” their lack of experience. However, notwithstanding this or the fact that St. Louis outshot the Atoms 21-11, Philadelphia prevailed in a 5-3 win. The sharp play of reserve keeper Norm Wingert was the difference, as his 18 saves frustrated the Stars’ attempts to take a commanding lead early in the match. Meanwhile, the Atoms relied on two goals by Bobby Ludwig and one goal apiece from Karl Minor, Joe Luxbacher, and 37-year old Walt Chyzowych, star of the old Ukranian Nationals and Spartans teams. Three other American stars–Pat McBride, Gene Geimer, and two-time Hermann Trophy winner Al Trost–tallied for St. Louis.
On January 26, the second doubleheader of the tournament was played. The first game–televised nationally by CBS–found Dallas trouncing the Atoms, 6-2; Mike Renshaw copped a hat trick for the Tornado, and Ilija Mitic, Bob Ridley, and Roy Turner also added goals. Philadelphia’s lone goals were from Luxbacher and Tom Galati. The biggest surprise was Dallas keeper Ken Cooper’s upstaging Philly netminder Bob Rigby, outsaving him 15-13 in the win. Ultimately, as all four teams finished with 1-1 records, Dallas advanced to the semifinals on goal differential. The San Jose Earthquakes went on to win the first NASL Indoor Tournament, behind the play of tournament co-MVP Paul Child.
This diversion out of the way, the club set its sights upon again contending for the NASL outdoor title. As a result of 1974’s collapse, Miller determined that he needed to improve the quality of the players on his squad. No more would he be able to rely on journeymen from England’s Third Division to compete in the rapidly improving NASL. Instead, the Atoms would have to overhaul their roster.
Fortunately, they still had a solid base of top flight Americans. Bobby Smith spent the winter playing for Dundalk of the League of Ireland, and he returned to Philadelphia a vastly improved footballer. Of course, two-time all-star goalkeeper Bob Rigby was also returning, along with fellow all-star Derek Trevis. Other returning stalwarts included Barry Barto, George O’Neill, Tom Galati (runner-up in the 1974 Rookie of the Year voting), Bill Straub, and Norm Wingert.
Elsewhere, however, there was a complete turnover of the roster. Two-time first team all-star Chris Dunleavy would not return, as a result of breaking his leg in England. At least the Atoms wanted Dunleavy back, though; his two teammates, Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt, were not sought by the club, and neither returned in 1975. While this decision is understandable, given the duo’s mid-season scoring drought, it removed two of the club’s most popular players from the roster.
The Atoms enjoyed another strong collegiate draft. The team’s first round pick was a talented young midfielder out of Penn State named Chris Bahr. A product of Neshaminy High School, Bahr was a three-time college all-American with the Nittany Lions. He also had an excellent pedigree: he was the son of 1950 World Cup hero Walt Bahr, and the brother of original Atom Casey Bahr.
Most of the new faces on the roster, however, were experienced British professionals, all hailing from that league’s First Division. From Birmingham City, the Atoms acquired defender Tony Want, and complimented him with another solid defender, Roy Ellam of Leeds United. In the midfield, another Birmingham City product, Bob Hope, was acquired, along with Liverpool veteran John McLaughlin.
Still smarting from last season’s inability to score goals, a number of new faces were brought in to fill the forward position. Tony Cavanagh, the 1974 Player of the Year in Ireland, was the most notable acquisition. Joining Cavanagh were two Bermuda products, Ralph Bean and Freddie Lewis. Gone, however, was the “Jim Fryatt of the future”: Joe Luxbacher was released. He eventually signed with the Pittsburgh Condors of the American Soccer League, scoring six goals in 1975.
Obviously, Luxbacher, Provan and Fryatt were not the only casualties. Also handed their walking papers were Lew Meehl, Bobby Ludwig, and Skip Roderick (after playing in England in the winter), while Stan Startzell was traded to Boston for Alex Papadakis (who had played for the Atoms in the 1974 Soviet Red Army indoor match but, because of an injury, would never actually play for the Atoms) and Karl Minor sent to Washington for a draft pick.. Had Miller abandoned his commitment to giving American kids an opportunity to excel? Not exactly. Rather, Miller refocused his commitment to putting a winning side on the pitch. “Right now, the league is more important,” Miller said at the time. “As far as American players go, we’re doing it [playing them]. More teams are playing them, but it won’t happen overnight. When the league is a little more settled, we can begin to limit the number of imports. But we can’t do it while we’re still expanding; we need players with experience.”
Of course, “experience” had long been a euphemism for “British pro” in the NASL, so one could be excused if he greeted Miller’s words with skepticism. However, the Atoms coach did, in fact, remain committed to giving Americans a chance to excel. Throughout the 1975 season, he would continue to regularly start four natives (Rigby, Smith, Straub and Bahr) at a time when the league itself required none.
The Atoms opened their third season in Baltimore, with Chris Bahr netting his first professional goal in a 1-0 win. The Atoms’ home opener drew only 13,821; while the envy of the rest of the league (only San Jose and Seattle had larger opening day crowds), the 7,000 fan drop from the previous two seasons was an ominous sign.
From the beginning of the season, the Atoms were little more than a .500 team. Injuries to key players kept Miller’s club from getting on track, and the Atoms never seriously contended in a division that included the eventual NASL champions, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
A few bright spots entertained the ever-dwindling fan base that supported the club, however. Chris Bahr proved to be a revelation, setting an NASL scoring record for goals by a native-born American by netting 11, including two 2-goal games and four game winners. Chris also netted the first “golden goal” in Atoms history, taking advantage of the NASL’s new “sudden death” tie-breaker policy by scoring in overtime against New York in front of 20,124 at Veterans Stadium. Unlike in previous years, however, the large crowd did not come to see the Atoms, but instead hoped to catch a glimpse of the Cosmos’ new signing, the Brazilian legend Pelé.
Bobby Smith also had an impressive year, and became the first native-born American to be named a first-team all-star after the season. Some of the new Atoms also made their marks in the league, as both Tony Want and Bob Hope were named second-team all-stars. Bahr, while shut out of an all-star berth, was selected as the 1975 NASL Rookie of the Year.
On the field and at the gate, however, the Atoms floundered. Once again, the team–excepting Bahr–could not put the ball in the back of the net, finishing near the bottom of the league in goals scored. More importantly, fan support disappeared. While it would be easy to blame the losing, the fact is the team lost its identity between the 1974 and 1975 seasons. Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt–extremely popular players–had been released. Local heroes like Bobby Ludwig and Skip Roderick had been unceremoniously cut. In short, the club had sacrificed its soul in lunging for the brass ring in 1975. Had the club won games, perhaps the gambit would have paid off. As it was, the Atoms were just a shade below mediocre.
Needing goals and hoping to excite the fans, the Atoms re-acquired Jim Fryatt. Fryatt had signed with the expansion Hartford Bicentennials prior to the season, where he rejoined the team’s coach, ex-Atom Manny Schellscheidt. In mid-July, Fryatt rejoined the Atoms, but could only manage one assist in his five games with the team.
Another bright spot in a season without much to brag about was John McLaughlin’s hat-trick on August 1 against Baltimore at Veterans Stadium. McLaughlin’s hat-trick was only the third in Atoms history, with the other two belonging to Andy Provan. McLaughlin–like Bahr and the team’s third highest scorer, Bob Hope–was a midfielder. Once again, the lack of a proven finisher up front had served to be the Atoms’ undoing.
By the end of the season, Philadelphia’s average attendance was a paltry 6,849. In addition, Tom McCloskey, whose finances were already suspect in the wake of his pulling out of the NFL, suffered more losses from the Atoms than he was willing or able to bear. By 1976, there would be a fire sale of the Atoms roster. Ultimately, the team would be sold.
It was not certain whether Philadelphia would even field a team for the 1976 season. Ironically, with all eyes turned on the City of Brotherly Love during the United States’ Bicentennial celebration, there was the distinct possibility that professional soccer would be absent.
It was doubly ironic, in light of the fact that the Atoms had been responsible for the NASL’s resurgence up to that point, a resurgence that had been capped by the New York Cosmos’ signing of the incomparable Pelé in June 1975. Now, more than ever, professional soccer had captured the attention of American sports fans, and of the world.
Atoms owner Tom McCloskey, after a disappointing 1975, had lost his desire to operate a pro soccer franchise. In spite of his earlier commitment, McCloskey grew weary of the fact that he had lost substantial sums of money on the club over the past three seasons. This fact, along with a general downturn in his construction business, had forced McCloskey to abandon his dream of operating an NFL team, even after being awarded a franchise. In any event, McCloskey was determined to recoup some of his losses before he pulled the plug entirely.
This led to the revival of a grand Philadelphia sports tradition: the fire sale. Much like Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s baseball team, which sold off all of its star players every few years to make ends meet, the Atoms started shopping around many of their star players.
One of the conditions of Pelé’s signing with the Cosmos was that they build a team around him worthy of his talents. New York, owned by Warner Communications, certainly had the finances to do this, and would soon comb the globe to sign some of the world’s finest footballers. The Cosmos’ first move to beef up their roster, however, involved acquiring the league’s two best American players: Bob Rigby and Bobby Smith were sold to New York for $100,000, an extraordinarily high sum at the time.
Prior to that, in December 1975, Al Miller had left the club to coach the Dallas Tornado. Derek Trevis soon joined the exodus, leaving to become player-coach of the San Diego Jaws. John McLaughlin followed Miller to Dallas, along with Bob Hope. Norm Wingert retired to become a school administrator in the Los Angeles area, and to co-write a soccer instructional book called Winning Soccer with Miller. Chris Bahr, after being drafted by the NFL champion Pittsburgh Steelers, left the Atoms to begin a Hall of Fame caliber kicking career.
By the end of 1975, McCloskey had essentially closed up shop. Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League commissioner, eventually intervened and helped find new owners. Philadelphia was “one of the absolutely top areas in the country in soccer interest,” said Woosnam. Strangely, however, he could not find any local investors willing to invest in the club, and things looked bleak until an ownership group stepped forward to purchase the club. These angels, however, came from the most unlikely of places.
The United Club of Jalisco, an amalgamation of four Mexican teams (Atlas, Jalisco, Guadalajara, and Universidad) purchased the franchise, and immediately began restocking the roster. Jesus “Chuco” Ponce, a veteran of six years’ coaching in the Mexican First Division, was hired as coach. Much like his predecessor, Ponce favored an up-tempo style of play. Unlike Miller, however, Ponce placed less emphasis on tactics.
By the time of the purchase, the only Atoms remaining were Barry Barto, Tom Galati, George O’Neill, Manny Matos, and Bill Straub. Juan Palletta, a huge disappointment in 1974, was also brought back into the fold. The Atoms also hoped to keep their tradition of strong drafts alive, selecting Philadelphia Textile forward Brooks Cryder in the first round, and drafting forward Jerry Angstat from Kutzdown State with the pick acquired from Washington in the Karl Minor trade of 1975. Free agent signings included goalkeeper Jim Miller, a graduate of Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.
Another local connection could be found in the guise of Ed Tepper. A local businessman who had previously owned the Philadelphia Wings box lacrosse team, Tepper was hired to act as President and General Manager of the team.
The remainder of the Atoms roster, however, was drawn from a pool of 150 players from the four Jalisco Selecion clubs, twenty percent of whom were foreigners to Mexico. In other words, the new Atoms had a diverse pool of talent to draw from. Among the more experienced players were Rene Vizcaino, a 29-year old goalkeeper with plenty of experience; Jorge Gomez, a smart fullback with eight years experience in the Mexican First Division; and Salvador Navarro, who played on Guadalajara’s 1970 national championship team.
The new-look Atoms did not participate in the 1976 NASL Indoor tournament, as they were essentially without a roster. On April 8, 1976, however, the Atoms warmed up for the upcoming outdoor season by facing the Washington Diplomats at the Spectrum. Still battling a formidable language barrier, the Atoms rallied to win, 4-3. Tom Galati scored a goal, along with Pedro Herrada, Salvador Navarro, and Belasario Lopez. Chris Bahr, although expected to play, officially ruled himself out for the season by not turning up, and Brooks Cryder decided to sign with a team in the American Soccer League. Juan Palletta appeared in this match, and was cut soon thereafter.
Pedro.” “Salvador.” “Belasario.” Not exactly household names, and a far cry from Andy, Bob, Bobby, Chris and Jim–the heroes from previous seasons. Still, soccer fans remained optimistic. Camden Courier-Post writer Craig Evans wrote, “Who knows, maybe the Latin flavor is just the right formula to rekindle the soccer fever which swept Philly a few years ago when the Atoms won the championship.” On the other hand, Evans rightly pointed out another major problem: “There was…plenty of interest in 1973. To rekindle that excitement is still a tremendous and demanding task. One thing will be missing: American soccer fans had some heroes, like [Bob] Rigby and [Bobby] Smith, whom they could instantly identify with. A foreign flavor may make it more difficult.”
Also, given the obvious Latin bias, one had to wonder what role Americans would play on the team, especially given the significant contributions they had made in the past for the Atoms. According to Ponce, the Yanks still had a role: as enforcers. Their more physical style of play would compliment the artistry of the Mexicans. A far cry from the roles Miller had his charges play, to say the least.
Another change involved the Atoms home field. After three years in Veterans Stadium, the club moved to Franklin Field, an older facility, but one with better sightlines for soccer matches.
It would not have mattered where the Atoms played, though. With the nearly one-hundred percent turnover in the roster in two seasons, the magic was gone. Only 8,400 came to Franklin Field to see the Atoms win their home opener, 1-0, a dreary affair on May 2. Victor Perez netted the only goal. Perez looked to be a superstar in the making, netting five goals in his first six matches. He soon cooled off, however, scoring only two more the rest of the season.
On July 2, the team’s attendance was reported as 1,776. This was obviously someone’s idea of a joke, since the game was played two days before the Bicentennial celebration. On July 17, over 25,000 turned out for the Atoms match against New York. Once again, though, it was Pelé, and not the Atoms, who was the attraction. The master did not disappoint, scoring the game-winner in a 2-1 Atoms loss.
By August 13, it was all over. The Atoms lost to Washington in overtime, and finished out of the playoffs by 34 points. The team averaged a paltry 6,449 in its 11 home games, almost half the figure it enjoyed in its glory days. No Atoms were named post-season all-stars. Bobby Smith and Bob Hope, however, were named second team all-stars, and Bob Rigby was having an outstanding season before suffering a broken collarbone in June. Al Miller’s Dallas team finished in second in its division; Derek Trevis’ San Diego club finished in last, and would move to Las Vegas at the end of the year. Incidentally, one of Trevis’ first moves in the desert was to hire his old mate Jim Fryatt as an assistant coach. Toronto won the NASL championship.
After the season, the club was almost moved to San Antonio, to replace the existing NASL club which had just moved to Hawaii. In theory, the predominantly Mexican roster would draw more fans in the Texas city. However, the NASL intervened and, instead, placed the once-proud Atoms in receivership.
After 1976, the North American Soccer League placed the once-proud Philadelphia Atoms franchise into receivership. However, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam was still acutely aware of the Philadelphia’s potential as a soccer city, and was keen to expand back into the City of Brotherly Love.
With the demise of the Atoms, Philadelphia was without professional soccer in 1977, Pelé’s final year with the New York Cosmos. The great player’s farewell tour had generated tremendous interest in the circuit, however, and crowds of over 40,000 could be found in New York and Minnesota with some regularity. After the 1977 season, Woosnam decided the time was right to undertake a massive expansion, and announced that six new teams would be added for the 1978 season. On November 15, 1977, the Philadelphia Fury became the NASL’s 22nd franchise. Initially, however, the team was news not for the fact that it was bringing professional soccer back to Philadelphia, but because of its ownership group.
The Fury’s owners listed like the roster at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among the team’s investors were Rick Wakeman, influential keyboardist with the hugely successful rock group, Yes; Peter Frampton, at that time the biggest solo rock star in the world by virtue of his mega-platinum album, Frampton Comes Alive; and Paul Simon, the well-known New York songwriter. (Although early reports included Mick Jagger as part of the ownership group, he in fact backed out of the deal on the advice of his advisors.) Other music industry big-wigs investing in the team were Frank Barsalona, manager of both Wakeman and Frampton; Dee Anthony, manager of Frampton and major-league acts like Humble Pie; Peter Rudge, the Rolling Stones tour manager; Terry Ellis and Chris Wright, owners of Chrysalis Records; and Jerry Moss, co-owner of A&M; Records.
In keeping with this rock and roll background, the Fury proceeded to unveil one of the most attractive logos in all of sports history: a distinctive soccer ball-reentering-atmosphere logo was introduced, and the maroon and yellow fireball was sure to be a licensing hit, long before anyone realized the potential for such things. Even today, in spite of the team’s brief history, the Fury’s jersey is one of the more popular selling retro items in the TOFFS catalog.
Ultimately, what the Fury did as a soccer team was going to make or break its chances of success. As it turned out, the Fury evolved into what was basically a continuation of the Atoms franchise, as several former players wound up returning to Philadelphia and contributing to the new club.
The first major Atoms connection could be found in the front office. Bob Ehlinger, the general manager during the Atoms 1973 championship season, returned to Philadelphia after serving three years as the NASL Deputy Commissioner. One of Ehlinger’s first signings was Derek Trevis, who was available after an unsuccessful two-year stint as player-coach with the San Diego Jaws and Las Vegas Quicksilvers.
Ehlinger’s goal was to build a team primarily American, if not all American, within three to five years, and to build it with mostly Philadelphia area players. As the Atoms had proved, this was a workable goal. In keeping with that aim, the Fury drafted Levittown, PA native and Penn State graduate Rich Reice with its first pick in the 1978 NASL Draft. The Fury also drafted Rancocas Valley High School and Mercer County College star Pat Fidelia in the supplemental draft. Finally, the Fury acquired several free agents with local ties, including Florian Kempf and goalkeeper Dave Bragg.
Of course, several ex-Atoms found their way home, as well. Along with Trevis, Bill Straub returned to help anchor the new team’s backline. Also joining the defensive corps was Brooks Cryder, the Atoms’ first-round draft pick in 1976 who had eschewed the Atoms for a season in the minor American Soccer League. Finally, goalkeeper Jim Miller, a native of Roxborough, returned to professional soccer with the Fury.
Of course, by 1978, an NASL team could no longer get by with a smattering of local talent combined with a few journeymen English players. As a result, the Fury dug deep into its relatively deep pockets and signed a number of international superstars. The Fury’s first signing was Peter “The Wizard of Oz” Osgood, a prolific goalscorer who had been capped a number of times by the English national team. Joining Osgood was midfielder Alan Ball, a star of England’s 1966 World Cup champions. Another star was Johnny Giles, long-time Irish international star renowned for his time with Leeds United. Rounding out the roster were a number of lesser signings: goalkeeper Keith MacRae, midfielder Tony Glavin, defender John Dempsey, and a number of young Irishmen, including Fran O’Brien, Eddie Byrne, Pat Byrne, and Pierce O’Leary.
To coach this motley assortment, the Fury tabbed a 37-year old Englishman named Richard Dinnis, fresh from coaching Newcastle to a respectable middle-of-the-table finish in the English First Division (now the Premier League).
Along with the wild logo, the Fury introduced another first: designer uniforms. Sal J. Cesarani, a two-time Coty Award winner in the field of clothes design, was commissioned to design the Philadelphia kit. “I wanted to give the uniforms a collegiate, All-American air,” said Cesarani. Instead of the “usual V-necked shirt thing,” the Fury shirt featured a deep three-button placket, a ribbed collar and capped sleeves. Of a stretchy polyester and cotton blend, the shirt was designed as “trim fitting so it will stay down inside the shorts,” said Cesarani. The shorts themselves were tapered and two inches shorter than the usual shorts in use at the time, with the side vents five inches deep instead of the more typical two inches. Finally, the designer felt that, since the socks “were so apparent during the game, I wanted to do something with them.” What he did was sew a fishtail-like trim down the side of the high, sturdy cotton socks so that they appeared to be an extension of the trim on the shorts.
There was a purpose to this: surveys at the time had shown that, unlike in Europe, where soccer was almost exclusively a spectator sport for males only, 45% of the American soccer audience was female. Thus, the Fury was engaging in a pretty blatant case of pandering. This concern with non-soccer related issued was an ominous sign.
On paper, the Fury looked to be a formidable lot, particularly playing in the NASL’s American Soccer Conference, a conference made up primarily of expansion teams and also-rans. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, its Eastern Division included both the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, two of the better teams in the league.
Off the field, the Fury tried to generate the same excitement that had greeted the Atoms five years earlier. An ambitious advertising campaign included a clever commercial featuring Peter Osgood juggling a soccer ball across the Walt Whitman Bridge while being followed by herd of young kids, all to the tune of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” The catchy Fury logo could be seen everywhere, and local stores actually carried Fury merchandise.
Against this backdrop, the Fury began the 1978 season on April 1, playing against Washington in Veterans Stadium before 18,191. Unfortunately, the team was thrashed, 3-0. Still, many familiar faces could be seen on the field, including Miller, Straub, and, as a substitute, Trevis. Including Cryder (who was drafted by the Atoms, but never played for them), the team had four ex-Atoms.
Unfortunately, fans were somewhat confused by the product on the field. For months, Philly fans had been told of the abilities of Alan Ball, Johnny Giles, and Keith MacRae. However, all three were delayed in reporting to Philadelphia, as they were finishing their English seasons. As a result, fans first impression of the new team was one of being somewhat cheated.
Another problem for the Fury was the fact that Peter Osgood, for all of the hype, turned out to be a complete bust. Hyped as a goalscorer, Osgood did not register a tally until the team’s seventh match, and that remained his only goal through 22 games.
Still, some of the old magic returned in the Fury’s second match, which saw Derek Trevis score a “golden goal” in a 3-2 win over Memphis. As the season progressed, Philadelphia’s big name players started to trickle in. Ball and MacRae debuted in the team’s fifth match, with Ball scoring two goals. By the time Giles arrived in late May, however, the team was an unimpressive 5-5, and mired in the Eastern Division basement.
By June, Dinnis had been fired as coach, and was replaced by Ball. The change did not help much; like their predecessors, the Fury could not put the ball in the back of the net. One player who did generate some excitement was Pat Fidelia, who led the team in goals with eight, seven of which came as a substitute. Fans also embraced the scrappy play of Fran O’Brien and John Dempsey, two players who would have fit right in with the “No Goal Patrol” of five seasons earlier.
Thanks to the NASL’s insane point system, the Fury advanced to the playoffs in spite of finishing in last place in the American Soccer Conference Eastern Division with a 12-18 record. Philadelphia made a quick exit, however, losing to Detroit 1-0 thanks to a Trevor Francis goal. Although never capturing the hearts of Philadelphians the way the Atoms had, the Fury averaged a respectable 8,279 per match. However, given the league’s growth in the last few years, this placed the team a dismal 18th out of 24 teams.
Entering 1979, the Fury hoped to correct the mistakes of the previous season. To that end, all of the big name stars, except Alan Ball, were released. Ball, however, had no desire to return as a player-coach. Such an arrangement would have been impracticable in any event, since English soccer commitments would again prevent Ball from appearing in a Fury uniform until eight games into the season.
Needing a coach, the club initially attempted to go top shelf by signing Jacek Gmoch, coach of Poland’s 1978 World Cup team. Gmoch had plenty of local ties–he went to the University of Pennsylvania, and coached the Polish Eagles in the local United Soccer League–and would have been an intriguing choice. In fact, he accepted the job in November 1978, and spent time studying videos of the club’s matches from the previous season. However, Poland’s Minister of sport refused to release Gmoch from his national team responsibilities until June 1979. At first, the Fury were going to go along with this arrangement, since the recently retired Derek Trevis would have been a more than capable interim coach. Ultimately, the club deemed that option unacceptable. Since a compromise could not be reached with the Polish soccer federation, the Fury were forced to scramble for a new coach.
Only two months before the start of the season, the Fury finally acquired a coach. Marko Valok, former Yugoslavian National Team and Olympic coach, was hired on February 16, 1979. While an excellent coach, the announcement was somewhat underwhelming in the wake of the Gmoch disappointment.
While trying to find a coach, the team set about upgrading their roster. The young core of the team, including Brooks Cryder, Fran O’Brien, Rich Reice, Tony Glavin and super-sub Pat Fidelia, were all returning, as were veteran stalwarts Ball and John Dempsey. Bill Straub retired, however, and Trevis became a full-time assistant coach. Although attempts to acquire attacking midfielder Bruce Rioch from Derby County and defender Chris Catlin from Brighton fell through, the Fury had better luck within the league, picking up solid goalkeeper Keith Van Eron from Houston and goal scoring maven David Robb from Tampa Bay.
With less than two months to prepare, it was not surprising to find that Valok had difficulty getting his team ready for the 1979 season. The club dropped its season opener in Memphis, but opened its home slate with a 3-0 thrashing of Rochester. Fury fans were treated to a Robb hat-trick, and the fiery Scotsman quickly became as popular as fellow countryman and former Atoms star Andy Provan. Unfortunately, only 6,152 attended the opener.
Although much improved, the Fury remained an inconsistent side. Through April, the team was 2-4. However, help was on the way with the arrival of Ball and the acquisition of another goal scorer, Frank Worthington, on loan from Bolton. Worthington almost never arrived–Dallas also claimed a loan arrangement with the striker. The Fury ultimately prevailed, however, and Worthington scored a goal to compliment two by Robb in his Philadelphia debut.
Ball, on the other hand, proved to be relatively ineffective. As a result, he was traded to Vancouver, where he proceeded to lead the Whitecaps to the 1979 NASL Championship, being named MVP of the Soccer Bowl that year. The Fury had better luck in a trade to shore up their defense. Just before the trade deadline, Philadelphia acquired Bob Rigby from Tulsa, who had only just acquired the goalkeeper from Los Angeles a day earlier. The popular ex-Atom immediately re-established himself as a fan favorite.
Robb ultimately finished among the league scoring leaders with 16 goals, with Worthington adding 10 and Fidelia, continuing his phenomenal super-sub role, netting 9 goals. Unfortunately, almost no one noticed–the team averaged an anemic 5,624 per match, dead last in the league.
However, the team suddenly captured the city’s imagination in the playoffs. After once again squeaking in with a 10-20 record, the team shocked the league by sweeping the Houston Hurricane, the American Soccer Conference’s top team, in a two game playoff. As a result of this unexpected turn of events, the Fury were without a place to play their home match in the ASC quarterfinals; the Phillies were booked for a long homestand, so Veterans Stadium was unavailable. With nowhere else to go, the Fury moved their match to Franklin Field.
This turned out to be a blessing. Veterans Stadium, like most facilities built to accommodate both baseball and football, was an abysmal place to watch a soccer game, totally devoid of charm or atmosphere. Franklin Field, on the other hand, was a traditional oval stadium, providing excellent sight lines.
A combination of the superior facility and excitement over the Fury’s playoff run led 10,395 fans to Franklin Field. The fans saw Fidelia and Worthington score goals, but the Fury lost the match to Tampa Bay in a shootout after the teams were tied at regulation and after overtime. The fury were bounced out of the playoffs two days later, losing to the Rowdies 1-0 before a national television audience courtesy of ABC.
Still, enthusiasm ran high at the conclusion of the 1979 season. They reached a fever pitch with the announcement that Eddie Firmani, the greatest coach the NASL had seen at that point and the holder of three NASL championships with two different teams, had been hired to coach the club. Ironically, Firmani’s arrival would ultimately doom any chance the team had of succeeding in Philadelphia.
In the winter of 1979-80, a number of Fury players suited up for the Philadelphia Fever of the Major Indoor Soccer League. When the MISL started a year before, two teams dominated play by virtue of the fact they were essentially indoor versions of NASL clubs. The regular season champion, the Houston Summit, were the outdoor Houston Hurricane in indoor clothing. Similarly, the league’s playoff champion, the New York Arrows, were made up almost exclusively of players from the NASL’s Rochester Lancers. The runner up in the playoffs that year had been the Philadelphia Fever, a team made up almost exclusively of local amateur players, along with two seasoned pros, Joe Fink and Fred Grgurev.
Apparently deciding that it could not compete with this roster, the Fever took the logical step of “affiliating” with the Fury. As a result, the Fever were able to add Bob Rigby, Brooks Cryder, and several other Fury players to the roster. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of many of the local players who had been so popular the year before, such as ex-Atoms Bobby Ludwig, Skip Roderick, and Lew Meehl. As it turned out, the arrangement yielded few results, as the Fever missed the playoffs. It also kept fans away; although the Fever had led the league in attendance in 1978-79, it finished near the bottom of the pack in 1979-80. Like the Atoms before them, the Fever had underestimated the value of a local identity in trying to accumulate talent for a championship run. The fans never again regained interest, and the team would fold after the 1981-82 season. As a result of the arrangement, the Fury were able to acquire another ex-Atom, all-pro defender Bobby Smith.
Also, Fever coach George O’Neill served as the Fury’s assistant coach, replacing ex-teammate Derek Trevis. The first year of the new decade was a make-or-break one for the Fury. However, the club entered the year with much optimism. Along with the hiring of Firmani, the team could look forward to a nucleus that included Bob Rigby, Bobby Smith, John Dempsey, Fran O’Brien, and Tony Glavin. The Fury also acquired Kensington native Dave McWilliams from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, adding another local connection. In addition, the team could look forward to another year of Pat Fidelia’s exploits.
And, of course, the fans could look forward to another year of David Robb’s goal scoring exploits. However, the new coach would soon reveal himself to be a raging egotist. One of his first moves was to summarily dispatch Robb to Vancouver for cash. Thus, in one fell swoop, any chance of maintaining the fan interest generated by the 1979 playoff run disappeared.
Firmani assured all who would listen that Robb would barely be missed, since two of his “discoveries,” Bob Vosmaer from Holland and Ossama Khalil from Egypt, would develop into major goal scorers. The fact that Philadelphia fans were not thrilled that their hero had been replaced by two players whose names could not be pronounced was apparently lost on the club’s rock-and-roll ownership, as well as on new general manager Tom Fleck. Another fact lost on the Fury was that Frank Worthington was loaned out to Tampa Bay for 1980, leaving the club without both of its top goalscorers. Also, the team ignored the fact that Franklin Field provided a really good atmosphere for soccer, and again played in cavernous Veterans Stadium.
The Fury were dead on arrival in 1980. Starting the season 1-7, and drawing only 9,574 fans to the home opener, the team finished 10-22, missing the playoffs for the first time in their brief history. An embarrassing average of 4,778 fans attended each match. After the season, the team was sold to Molson Breweries, who moved the team to Montreal. Playing with essentially the same roster as in 1980, the Montreal Manic averaged 23,704 fans a game in 1981, and drew over 50,000 fans to its playoff matches.
Depending on your view, the Fury were either snakebit or the most poorly run franchise in the league. Either way, the team was a dismal failure, and professional Division One soccer has not returned to the city since its demise. Still, the club presented a curious example of what might have happened had the Atoms survived. Indeed, with only a year separating the two, the Fury were essentially the “Philadelphia Atoms II”: from general manager Bob Ehlinger through players Derek Trevis, Bill Straub, Brooks Cryder, Bob Rigby, Jim Miller, and Bobby Smith, through assistant coach George O’Neill, to trainer Bruce Haynes, the club always maintained a thorough Atoms presence. However, horrible mismanagement–particularly with the giving-away of David Robb–ensured that the team would not survive.
Indoor soccer was the primary option available to Philly fans for the two decades following the folding of the Fury. Indoor soccer arrived in 1978 with the launching of the Philadelphia Fever, a charter franchise in the major Indoor Soccer League. The team was always middling – during its four years of existence. The Fever finished 4th in 1978-79, but made it to the championship series before falling to the New York Arrows. They were mediocre in their next three seasons, finishing at the bottom in their final season.
Soccer lay fallow in the region for the next dozen years, aside from the ever-present college teams, who provided their share of success, the amateur leagues and the ever growing youth scene. The women’s National Team played a pair of friendlies in suburban Oakford, losing to China 2-1 in 1991 and Germany 2-1 in 1993. The Philadelphia Freedom was one of the charter teams in the W-League, the first national women’s soccer organization. After playing in the unofficial 1994 season, the Freedom managed a second place finish in 1995. Indoor pro soccer returned the following season with the launching of the Philadelphia Kixx in the National Professional (Indoor) Soccer League in 1996.
The Kixx got off to a modest start 1996-97 but the following year they Kixx won their division and fought their way to the conference finals, falling to the Cleveland Force giving up 30 goals in the second match, one of the highest scoring games in league history. On the outdoor front, the USISL in 1996 added a team to their division 3 outdoor circuit, the Philadelphia Freedom. They had a middling first season, played in the Indoor I-League in 96-97, and had a decent finish in 1997, going 10-1-1, for second in their division, but then folded. Meanwhile, their outdoor namesake, the Lady Freedoms, now renamed the Frency, had two pitiful seasons before folding in 1997. The Kixx on the other hand continued to do well, having two more decent seasons, and then a great season in 2001-02 when they finished at .682, good for second place. In the championship series, they came back from a trouncing at the hands of the Milwaukee Wave and won two hard-fought battles to win their first league title.
Women’s pro soccer arrived in Philadelphia in 2001, with the Charge launching as one of the Women’s United Soccer league’s charter franchises. All teams boasted a number of US National Team players and international superstars, and the Charge was no excpetion, boasting Mandy Clemens, Liu Ailing (China), and Saskia Webber. The Charge was a little thin on talent compared to most of the other teams, finishing in the middle of the standings table, but Liu Ailing was a top scorer, Melissa Moore was league’s third best goalkeeper and Doris Fitschen was named Defensive Player of the Year and earned a spot on the WUSA Global XI team.
In 2002, the Charge did much better, adding Chinese superstar Zhao Lihong and striker Marinette Pichon of France, who scored the only goal for the South in the all-star game. The Charge battled carolina for the regular season title right to the last game, falling just shy by a point. They then were shut out in the playoff semifinal, but it was still a great season, with Pichon winning Offensive Player of the Year and Mark Krikorian winning Coach of the Year. Fritschen again made the Global 11 squad. In 2003, the Charge did not suffer as much as many teams from call-ups to the Women’s World Cup, and drafted Hope Solo, soon to be a mainstay of the National team. Loui Ailing retired and Zhao Lohong was released in anticipation of callup. The team fell apart however, finishing last, and WUSA folded shortly after the end of the season amid financial losses caused by administrative overspending.
The Kixx continued to do well, winning their division in 2002-03, and making the semifinals in that season and 2004-05. As the decade wore on, the MISL began to shrink, and the Kixx fell into decline, but they rebounded in 06-07 to win their second league championship. When the MISL folded in 2008, the Kixx, along with some other MISL teams formed the National Indoor Soccer League (which was renamed as the new MISL in 2009). The Kixx are still looking to regain their winning ways of yore.
On the outdoor scene, the amateur Women’s Premier Soccer League expanded to the northeast and added the Philadelphia Pirates in 2005. The Pirates (renamed the Liberty in 2008) estabkished an amazing record for consistency in their five seasons, always finishing at or very close to .500 and the exact middle of the divisional standings. Nevertheless they did at least provide a footprint for the women’s game until the mig changes of 2010.
The Women’s Natiopna Team made their debut at Lincoln Financial Field, where 31,000 fans saw them defeat Nigeria in the 2003 Women’s World Cup. They returned in 2004 for a friendly with Denmark, and again in 2008 as part of their post Olympics victory tour in 2008 when they shut out Ireland 2-0. The Men’s National team finally made their Philadelphia debut when they defeated Panama in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Gold Cup in an exciting 2-1 overtime win before 32,000 fans.
The year 2010 was a major one for Philadelphia soccer fans, with the Debut of Division 1 professional teams for both women and men. The Philadelphia Independence made their debut with Women’s professional Soccer a week before Philadelphia Union made their debut in Major League Soccer. both teams were instant hits with the fans of this region so rich in soccer history, who had waited for decades for the professional game to make its return.
Philadelphia Union drew a crowd of 34,000 for their first home match, which led to a frustrating situation that could only happen in American soccer, with its penchant for bad luck and blown opportunities. As the Union completed construction of their soccer-specific stadium, they played temporarily at Lincoln Financial Field where they entertained crowds much larger than they would be able to accommodate at their new 18,000 seat venue in Chester. This was surely a first, a team’s new stadium being rendered absolete before opening day. But it was no surprise that a city with so much soccer history would be able to draw so many people to pro soccer matches, and the future for both Union and the Independence looked promising.
The Men’s National team delighted a crowd of 55,000 at Lincoln Financial Field on May 29, 2010 as they defeated Turkey 2-1 in their last exhibition before heading off to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. The Philadelphia Union continued its success and continual sellouts in 2011.
An extensive blog of Philly soccer history articles can be found at Philly Soccer Page, a site which has very comprehensive coverage of the Philadelphia soccer scene.