The ‘70s : 1976
It was not certain whether Philadelphia would even field a team for the 1976 season. Ironically, with all eyes turned on the City of Brotherly Love during the United States’ Bicentennial celebration, there was the distinct possibility that professional soccer would be absent.
It was doubly ironic, in light of the fact that the Atoms had been responsible for the NASL’s resurgence up to that point, a resurgence that had been capped by the New York Cosmos’ signing of the incomparable Pelé in June 1975. Now, more than ever, professional soccer had captured the attention of American sports fans, and of the world.
Atoms owner Tom McCloskey, after a disappointing 1975, had lost his desire to operate a pro soccer franchise. In spite of his earlier commitment, McCloskey grew weary of the fact that he had lost substantial sums of money on the club over the past three seasons. This fact, along with a general downturn in his construction business, had forced McCloskey to abandon his dream of operating an NFL team, even after being awarded a franchise. In any event, McCloskey was determined to recoup some of his losses before he pulled the plug entirely.
This led to the revival of a grand Philadelphia sports tradition: the fire sale. Much like Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s baseball team, which sold off all of its star players every few years to make ends meet, the Atoms started shopping around many of their star players.
One of the conditions of Pelé’s signing with the Cosmos was that they build a team around him worthy of his talents. New York, owned by Warner Communications, certainly had the finances to do this, and would soon comb the globe to sign some of the world’s finest footballers. The Cosmos’ first move to beef up their roster, however, involved acquiring the league’s two best American players: Bob Rigby and Bobby Smith were sold to New York for $100,000, an extraordinarily high sum at the time.
Prior to that, in December 1975, Al Miller had left the club to coach the Dallas Tornado. Derek Trevis soon joined the exodus, leaving to become player-coach of the San Diego Jaws. John McLaughlin followed Miller to Dallas, along with Bob Hope. Norm Wingert retired to become a school administrator in the Los Angeles area, and to co-write a soccer instructional book called Winning Soccer with Miller. Chris Bahr, after being drafted by the NFL champion Pittsburgh Steelers, left the Atoms to begin a Hall of Fame caliber kicking career.
By the end of 1975, McCloskey had essentially closed up shop. Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League commissioner, eventually intervened and helped find new owners. Philadelphia was “one of the absolutely top areas in the country in soccer interest,” said Woosnam. Strangely, however, he could not find any local investors willing to invest in the club, and things looked bleak until an ownership group stepped forward to purchase the club. These angels, however, came from the most unlikely of places.
In a precursor to Chivas USA’s involvment in Major League Soccer, the United Club of Jalisco, an amalgamation of four Mexican teams (Atlas, Jalisco, Guadalajara, and Universidad) purchased the franchise, and immediately began restocking the roster. Jesus “Chuco” Ponce, a veteran of six years’ coaching in the Mexican First Division, was hired as coach. Much like his predecessor, Ponce favored an up-tempo style of play. Unlike Miller, however, Ponce placed less emphasis on tactics.
By the time of the purchase, the only Atoms remaining were Barry Barto, Tom Galati, George O’Neill, Manny Matos, and Bill Straub. Juan Palletta, notwithstanding his being a huge disappointment in 1974, was also brought back into the fold. The Atoms also hoped to keep their tradition of strong drafts alive, selecting Philadelphia Textile forward Brooks Cryder in the first round, and drafting forward Jerry Angstat from Kutzdown State with the pick acquired from Washington in the Karl Minor trade of 1975. Free agent signings included goalkeeper Jim Miller, a graduate of Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.
Another local connection could be found in the guise of Ed Tepper. A local businessman who had previously owned the Philadelphia Wings box lacrosse team, Tepper was hired to act as President and General Manager of the team.
The remainder of the Atoms roster, however, was drawn from a pool of 150 players from the four Jalisco Selecion clubs, twenty percent of whom were foreigners to Mexico. In other words, the new Atoms had a diverse pool of talent to draw from. Among the more proven players were Rene Vizcaino, a 29-year old goalkeeper with plenty of experience; Jorge Gomez, a smart fullback with eight years experience in the Mexican First Division; and Salvador Navarro, who played on Guadalajara’s 1970 national championship team.
The new-look Atoms did not participate in the 1976 NASL Indoor tournament, as they were essentially without a roster. On April 8, 1976, however, the Atoms warmed up for the upcoming outdoor season by facing the Washington Diplomats at the Spectrum. Still battling a formidable language barrier, the Atoms rallied to win 4-3. Tom Galati scored a goal, along with Pedro Herrada, Salvador Navarro, and Belasario Lopez. Chris Bahr, although expected to play, officially ruled himself out for the season by not turning up, and Brooks Cryder decided to sign with a team in the American Soccer League. Juan Palletta appeared in this match, and was cut soon thereafter.
“Pedro.” “Salvador.” “Belasario.” Not exactly household names, and a far cry from Andy, Bob, Bobby, Chris and Jim--the heroes from previous seasons. Still, soccer fans remained optimistic. Camden Courier-Post writer Craig Evans wrote, “Who knows, maybe the Latin flavor is just the right formula to rekindle the soccer fever which swept Philly a few years ago when the Atoms won the championship.” On the other hand, Evans rightly pointed out another major problem: “There was…plenty of interest in 1973. To rekindle that excitement is still a tremendous and demanding task. One thing will be missing: American soccer fans had some heroes, like [Bob] Rigby and [Bobby] Smith, whom they could instantly identify with. A foreign flavor may make it more difficult.”
Also, given the obvious Latin bias, one had to wonder what role Americans would play on the team, especially given the significant contributions they had made in the past for the Atoms. According to Ponce, the Yanks still had a role: as enforcers. Their more physical style of play would compliment the artistry of the Mexicans. This was a far cry from the roles Miller had his charges play, to say the least.
Another change involved the Atoms home field. After three years in Veterans Stadium, the club moved to Franklin Field, an older facility, but one with better sightlines for soccer matches. It would not have mattered where the Atoms played, though. With the nearly one-hundred percent turnover in the roster in two seasons, the magic was gone. Only 8,400 came to Franklin Field to see the Atoms win their home opener, 1-0, a dreary affair on May 2. Victor Perez netted the only goal. Perez looked to be a superstar in the making, netting five goals in his first six matches. He soon cooled off, however, scoring only two more goals the rest of the season.
On July 2, the team’s attendance was reported as 1,776. This was obviously someone’s idea of a joke, since the game was played two days before the Bicentennial celebration. On July 17, over 25,000 fans turned out for the Atoms’ match against New York. Once again, though, it was Pelé, and not the Atoms, who was the attraction. The master did not disappoint, scoring the game-winner in a 2-1 Atoms loss.
By August 13, it was all over. The Atoms lost to Washington in overtime, and finished out of the playoffs by 34 points. The team averaged a paltry 6,449 in its 11 home games, almost half the figure it enjoyed in its glory days. No Atoms were named post-season all-stars. Bobby Smith and Bob Hope, however, were named second team all-stars, and Bob Rigby was having an outstanding season before suffering a broken collarbone in June. Al Miller’s Dallas team finished in second in its division; Derek Trevis’ San Diego club finished in last, and would move to Las Vegas at the end of the year. Incidentally, one of Trevis’ first moves in the desert was to hire his old mate Jim Fryatt as an assistant coach. Toronto won the NASL championship.
After the season, the club was almost moved to San Antonio, to replace the existing NASL club that had just moved to Hawaii. In theory, the predominantly Mexican roster would draw more fans in the Texas city. However, the NASL intervened.