The ‘70s : 1974
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 manager 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 in the NASL 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 several 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.
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. Having become 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 offense, 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’ goal-scorers 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.