The ‘70s : 1975
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 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.
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 of Philly net-minder 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 the club’s offensive collapse in 1974, 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 was 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, tying 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.