The ‘70s : 1973
The Atoms opened their inaugural season in an inauspicious manner, falling to the Stars 0-1 on May 5 before 6,782 in St. Louis. Still, Coach Miller showed the 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 these figures 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 lineup 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 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 in 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 line mate 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 both his stature (5’5”, 140 pounds) and his 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 were St. Louis’ Gene Geimer (10 goals-5 assists-25 points), 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 England’s famed Wembley Stadium 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, and would not play in the final. 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 and, from the start, 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.