Philly Soccer History - ...Something Big

The Beginnings Of Something Big

The push to bring major league professional soccer back to the United States in 1967 had resulted in one failure after another. Two leagues competed for what was a limited market in the first place that year and almost bled each other to death. In 1968, the two leagues merged to form the North American Soccer League. However, the fans continued to stay away in droves: the league averaged only 3,400 fans a match, well short of the 20,000 required to break even.

Just two months after the 1968 championship match, nearly every team in the league folded. As the 1969 season arrived, only Kansas City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Dallas, and St. Louis remained.

Under the patient hand of Commissioner Phil Woosnam, the NASL slowly crept back to life. Teams were added, and the league managed to stay alive. However, the league was still little better than the old ASL. Dominated by foreigners, only the St. Louis Stars bothered fielding American players in what was, ostensibly, an American league, and there was still little fan support.

Although the league had added the New York Cosmos to its roster in 1971, its franchises were still housed primarily in second-tier cities like Atlanta, Rochester, and Miami. There was not much interest in soccer in any of the other major markets.

In fact, there were no plans for the NASL to expand in 1973. However, an interesting series of events transpired to bring about a new team in Philadelphia. By the time the season was over, the North American Soccer League turned its fortunes around 180 degrees, and was on its way to becoming a successful major league circuit.

It all started easily enough. Tom McCloskey was a successful construction magnate who was eager to get involved in professional sports. In particular, he was interested in purchasing a National Football League franchise. The hometown Eagles were not for sale, however, so McCloskey was forced to be a mere fan for awhile. Of course, having deeper pockets than your average fan, McCloskey could afford to linger on the fringes of the NFL’s power base.

In 1973, McCloskey was in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl sporting eight friends, but zero tickets. Lamar Hunt, owner of the NFL’s Kansas City franchise, learned of McCloskey’s dilemma, and found nine tickets for him. The tickets would even be free of charge--sort of. You see, Hunt was also owner of the NASL’s Dallas Tornado franchise, and was always on the lookout for new investors in the 4-year old league. So, dealing in a position of strength, Hunt casually asked McCloskey, “How would you like to have a soccer franchise in Philadelphia?” McCloskey, needing the tickets and quite able to take a hint, agreed to buy an NASL franchise. Thus, for the sum of $25,000, the Philadelphia Atoms were born.

McCloskey was no novice to sports ownership. He had previously owned the old Philadelphia Ramblers of the Eastern Hockey League, and had been president of the Liberty Bowl just before it left the city. This time around, he wanted to run a successful franchise, and put his mind to ensuring that his new soccer team would be just that.

Once back in Philadelphia, McCloskey realized he had about three months to get the team ready for a May 5 start date. With hardly a thought, McCloskey appointed Bob Ehlinger, a marketing vice-president with his firm, as general manager of the club. For his part, Ehlinger had no soccer experience whatsoever; his sports experience consisted of his 20 years as a college football official.

Ironically, the two men’s total inexperience would prove advantageous. While experienced “soccer men” at the time might have hired some English veteran to put together a club, McCloskey and Ehlinger went to where a professional American football team would be more likely to go to get a coach--the college ranks. With nothing else to go by, they targeted a local boy. Al Miller had been an All-American soccer player at East Stroudsburg State in Pennsylvania, and was currently coaching a collegiate soccer powerhouse at Hartwick. To McCloskey and Ehlinger, he seemed a logical choice.

Miller himself was less than enthusiastic. He was all-too-familiar with the NASL’s history. As a result, he was dubious about his professional chances. However, Miller became convinced that McCloskey was worth taking a chance on after being impressed by the owner breaking a window at his home while trying to kick a ball past his son. With not much ado, the Atoms had a coach.

Again, McCloskey and Ehlinger were inclined to use the American football model for franchise building, and concentrated on the upcoming NASL draft. Miller, who was more than happy to build an American squad, used the first pick overall in the 1973 draft to tab Bob Rigby, an outstanding goalkeeper from Miller’s alma mater. The next round saw Miller draft Rider forward Bobby Smith. From Montreal he acquired Barry Barto, and from the New York Cosmos he grabbed former Penn All-American Stan Startzell. Rounding out the local connection, Miller signed Charlie Duccilli, holder of Temple University’s career scoring record and 1971 ASL leading scorer with the Philadelphia Spartans, and Casey Bahr of Navy, son of 1950 World Cup hero and former Philadelphia Nationals star Walt Bahr.

Miller and his charges were dispatched to England to train at Lilleshall. A dream facility, it was the training site for the English national team. By training in England, Miller hoped to impress his young Americans with a top-flight facility in a “real” soccer country. Also, it gave him the opportunity to fill out his squad with British players who played the fast-moving style Miller preferred. As the NASL played a summer schedule, a number of English players were available “on loan” to American clubs. Miller borrowed three Southport footballers--Andy Provan, Jim Fryatt, and Chris Dunleavy--and tried to make the best use of what little time he had to prepare for the 1973 season.

Meanwhile, back in America, the team was doing a remarkable job of marketing both itself and the sport. The team’s nickname had been selected in a name-the-team contest, and the winner received an all-expenses paid trip to Wembley for the FA Cup Final. The press covered the team enthusiastically. No doubt aided by the fact that Philadelphia sports teams (with the exception of the NHL’s Flyers) were a particularly wretched lot in the early 1970s, the media were anxious to glom on to any team that had a chance to be a winner. Add a local, American coach with his cast of local, American players, and it was clear that the papers had a story.

Al Miller, in particular, proved to be very popular with the Philadelphia media. He told the media what it was like growing up in the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Ono, Pennsylvania, a town that supposedly got its name at the first town meeting, when everyone kept saying “Oh no!” to the names being suggested. Other stories included his childhood nickname of “Little Bosh,” taken from the Pennsylvania Dutch term for “turnip,” and his attending school in a schoolhouse where all eight grades were taught in the same room. While seemingly insignificant, Miller possessed an element sorely lacking in a sport dominated by foreigners--all-American roots.

Clearly, Miller and McCloskey had been successful in wooing the press to their side. Now, the bigger question was whether the fans would come to the games.