Former great Bob Rigby recalls improbable 1973 Philadelphia Atoms championship season

Union to honor 1973 NASL Atoms team Saturday at PPL Park

May 5, 1973.

St. Louis Stars against the Philadelphia Atoms.

An expansion team comprised of mostly local college All-Americans prepare to take on one of the best teams in the North American Soccer League in their first ever game of the season – and club history.

As expected by many, the Atoms come up short against the Stars, 1-0. The mood in the locker room postgame is a quiet one, somber even as this young group, spearheaded by American coach Al Miller contemplates if this game perhaps shows the makings of what could be a very long season.

One of the last players to walk in from off the field is big English forward Jim Fryatt. Seeing the look across the locker room, Fryatt is confused by all the down trodden faces. And almost angry at the scene in front of him, Fryatt says:

“What the hell are you guys down about? That’s supposed to be the best team in this league! And I tell you what, if that’s the best team the NASL has to offer then we are winning the [expletive] championship this season!”

That’s the way former Atoms goalie, American soccer pioneer and former Philadelphia Union color analyst Bob Rigby remembers a moment that took place a little over 40 years ago, a prophetic statement made by Fryatt that culminated with the Atoms hoisting the NASL trophy six months later.

On August 25, 1973 inside Texas Stadium a young, tough no-nonsense bunch from Philly shocked the masses, winning the trophy in the first season and instantly supplanting its name not just in Philadelphia’s rich soccer history, but as a team remembered for its against-all-odds approach to how the game was viewed at the time, fitting in perfectly with the mindset of the town this group was brought together to represent.

On Saturday at PPL Park, many members of that storybook group will reunite as the Union plans to honor the 1973 team. The reunion plans to bring together local players like Charlie Duccilli and Lew Meehl, both former All-America selections at Temple, the latter of who coached the Drexel University men’s program for over 30 years. Also a part of that group is Roy Evans, the English-born defender who went on to manage English Premier League giants, Liverpool FC.

“It was storybook if you will how it all played out,” said Rigby. “It really was a nucleus of American talent that banded together as a group to do something great, something that no one expected. We fought like brothers, we drank like brothers it was a great time in professional sports. I have played on other teams overseas, on national teams but nothing in my career will compare to that season playing on that team with those group of men.”

It played out with the Atoms compiling an 11-2-8 record including winning four games straight down the stretch en route to their first and only championship. At the time, the NASL was trying to garner approval among soccer fans in this country by showcasing big market teams that featured overpriced stars – quietly skewing the balance of competition.

Which is what made this group unique: the overwhelming infusion of young American talent led the way and trumped the league’s ideology.

“For years in the NASL the rule was that you had to have one American [based player] on the field,” said Rigby. “It got to the point where most of the time it was European based players who married American girls to get green cards. We were like the second class citizens; they had to play us and a lot of coaches did so begrudgingly. So to have an American coach, compete with a predominantly American team – and not just Americans but local guys and then have the alchemy and chemistry of that group be so strong it was truly incredible.”

That chemistry created a season of success unlike any other. The Atoms averaged nearly two goals a game (1.62 goals per game average) and conceded less than a goal a game (0.67 goals against).

“We were a young team but Al Miller surrounded us with senior players that were all great men, great players and tough as nails, but guys that took the time to extend themselves and coach us [younger guys],” said Rigby. “Al Miller wasn’t the only coach, we had four guys on the field and in training that were coaches too.”

Philadelphia has had a host of teams that have gone on Cinderella runs.

Think Villanova men’s basketball in 1985. Or the improbable 1983 Phillies season in which they made it back to the World Series after the original team of destiny won it all in 1980.

The Atoms doing what it did against the Dallas Tornado supplants them right in that mix.

The other piece that is indicative of just how Cinderella that whole year turned out to be was the final game against Dallas,” said Rigby. “Dallas was one of those stacked teams that had Yugoslavian players, English players and we weren’t given a chance in hell to beat those guys – especially go down to Texas Stadium and get a result. Furthermore, Jim Fryatt and this little guy named Andy Provan, we all called him “the Flea” who played off Fryatt were both out. They got picked up to play for Southport, this second division team in England. You’re talking about two guys who scored like 83 percent of our goals that season gone for the championship game.”

So what happened?

“We lose our two top scorers and so we put in [Penn grad] Bill Straub, who gets his first start and Charlie Duccilli, who hadn’t played that much that season. So we had even more Americans on the field for the championship game and we went down there and against all odds beat Dallas, 2-0. It surprised so many, but it wasn’t surprising to us because it felt like every game that season was against all odds.”

Now, it wasn’t always a fun loving band of brothers like one many think.

It was still a Philly team in the 1970’s.

And hard times spawned hard men.

“We had more [expletive] go down in locker rooms that you can imagine,” said Rigby. “Fights? Absolutely. Screaming matches with guys and coaches getting in each other’s faces? Without question. And to be honest I miss that, and I bet you a lot of those guys would say the same thing. Honestly? It built character. Nothing gets close to that year, those guys and those memories. That has never changed for me and it never will.”

Contact Union writer Kerith Gabriel at kgabriel@philadelphiaunion.com