It was a club full of character.
The 1973 Philadelphia Atoms entered the North American Soccer League as an expansion team. They had the perfect roster filled with players willing to work extremely hard on and off the pitch. They also had the perfect type of chemistry, and that looseness away from the pitch brought them much closer.
They knew they were talented and they performed that way. The result was a championship in an expansion season, which will always be a remarkable accomplishment.
Earlier this month, the club reunited for a 40th anniversary celebration. The weekend was capped with a trip to PPL Park to watch the Philadelphia Union defeat D.C. United 2-0. The Atoms were honored on the pitch at halftime and received a huge ovation from the adoring fans.
Fast forward 40 years and the memories are still so fresh.
“I don’t know of any team in history that accomplished what this one did in an expansion year,” recalled Al Miller, who coached the ’73 Atoms. “I don’t know any team that’s met 40 years later, every five years and have this kind of feeling in the room every time you meet. Never heard of it. The whole feel from day one was unique and it’s never stopped.”
Though the Atoms celebrated the title with a victory over Dallas, it was the semifinal win over Toronto that still resonates 40 years later.
“I think it was beating Toronto in the semifinal at home in front of a delirious crowd,” Miller said with a smile. “We were so outmatched with Toronto’s roster. If you read their roster, this was a big-time team. They had one of the biggest groups of star players from Europe. Here we are, a bunch of fourth-division English players and Americans, and we hammered them. They didn’t know what hit them from the opening whistle to the last whistle. It was just to me, we won it that night. No one would ever stand in our way after that.”
That group of Atoms had so much personality. Off the pitch, they were a bit crazy. When it came down to business, well, they were all business.
And it started with Miller.
“There was one memory that made an impression that shows how serious the business was at hand,” said midfielder Lew Meehl, who coached the Drexel University men’s program for over 30 years. “I believe we were in Toronto. I believe the game was a tie. We really didn’t play good. We flew home that night and as we got off the plane that night, Al said, ‘Everybody, we’re going back to the stadium’ and he turned the lights on. We had a training session at 11, 12 at night at Veterans Stadium. We were all amazed for one. I could find other words for it, but it was a moment where maybe he sent a message. It was probably appropriate because things were going so well and we had a real letdown and coach had to make an impression, something he wouldn’t normally do. We did it and it worked because we took off from there.”
The Atoms recorded an 11-2-8 record, which included winning four games straight down the stretch, culminating with a coveted championship.
Those characters celebrated long into the night following the win. It was well-deserved and the memories have been etched in their minds for 40 years and counting.
“The best moment when the final whistle blew and we won the whole thing,” said midfielder George O’Neill. “We had to get back to Philadelphia and it was amazing. I looked around after the championship game and it was amazing. We were all so happy. We worked really hard and knew we had the talent. To accomplish what we did was amazing. We didn’t concede many goals all season. We were strong in every area. When we had a letdown, we got back up and got the job done. We had a true team and we had that chemistry from the beginning. It carried us all the way through and it was so special.
“To see these guys 40 years, the memories come flooding back. It’s so great to see everyone. It’s like we won this title just yesterday. For me, it’s totally incredible after 40 years to have guys come back from England, Las Vegas. Guys are just so close. If one of us e-mails or calls another one, we’re there for each other. The friendships have just lasted forever.”
Miller doesn’t need to be reminded of that championship season. He thinks about it quite often and always will.
“Not very many days go by without thinking about it, to be honest with you,” Miller said. “These guys are all a huge part of me and my career. They launched my pro career. I believe there is such a thing, and I feel there is, that this team was touched by God. When you win a championship, it can never be taken away from you. It’s what you dream about. You get a ring to remember it which I have since given to my daughter. The memories are what count.”
Contact Union writer Andy Jasner at firstname.lastname@example.org