The Nine Super Bowl Tickets That Bought A Soccer Team
Once upon a time there was a soccer team in Philadelphia called the Philadelphia Atoms.
Actually, there were lots of soccer teams in Philly before the Atoms. The “early days” go back to before 1834, the year the American Football Association was formed.
Most of those teams were ethnic-based, such as the Germans and Ukranians, or company sponsored like Bethleham Steel. Over in New Jersey you had the Kearny Scots.
Some were tied to other sports organizations, like the baseball Phillies in the “Golden Era” of Philadelphia soccer in the 20s and 30s.
The Philadelphia Nationals included some talented players like Eddie McIlveney, Benny McLaughlin, Tommy Oliver and an outstanding young midfielder from Kennsinger named Walter Bahr.
Bahr was runnerup for league MVP in 1948. Two years later it would be Bahr who assisted on the goal that beat England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil for the U.S. National Team.
Over the next decade and a half, the push for a major soccer league in the U.S. was basically one failure after another. Finally, in 1968, the two top leagues merged to form the North American Soccer League, but by 1969 the league was down to five teams, none of which was located in Philadelphia.
Philly got it’s team for nine NFL Super Bowl tickets and $25,000. The way the story is told, Philly construction magnate Tom McCloskey, who had his heart set on owning an NFL team, traveled to Los Angeles with eight friends, for the Super Bowl, all without tickets.
This article is Premium, please Log in or Subscribe to view full content![show_to accesslevel=’Subscriber’] Lamar Hunt, owner of the NFL’s Kansas City franchise, learned of McCloskey’s dilemma and secured nine Super Bowl tickets for his party of nine.
As part of the exchange, Hunt sold McCloskey on becoming a NASL owner of a soccer franchise in Philly, since the NFL Eagles were not for sale. Price tag was $25,000, and the Philadelphia Atoms were born, on paper in 1972.
McCloskey, without any soccer connections that might have resulted in him reaching “across the pond” for an English coach, hired Al Miller, a local boy who was then the head coach at Hartwick College.
It turned out to be a stroke of genius, or perhaps better said, a royal stroke of luck.
Miller drafted goalkeeper Bobby Rigby from Miller’s alma mater East Stroudsburg State. He then took Bobby Smith, from across the river in Trenton, NJ, a standout defender at Rider.
He acquired Barry Barto from Montreal, and got Penn All-American Stan Startzell from the Cosmos. He closed the circle by signing Charlie Druccilli, holder of Temple’s scoring records, and Casey Bahr, Walt’s oldest son, an outstanding All-American player at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Miller took his new team to England to train preseason at Lilleshall. There he filled out his roster with British players who played the fast style of soccer Miller preferred. Three were experienced pros from Southport, Andy Provan, Jim Fryatt and Chris Dunleavy.
Miller became a popular figure with fans and with the media. But they dropped their season opener, 1-0, before a crowd of 6,782 to St. Louis. They would not lose again for the next 12 games, and lost only twice the entire season.
Miller started five Americans, Rigby, Smith, Bahr, Lew Meehl and Manny Schellscheidt. All American born, except for Schellscheidt who was a naturalized citizen. All in a league where St. Louis was the only other team committed to playing American players.
The Atoms averaged 11,382 that year, nearly twice the league average. The last two home games the crowds were just under 20,000.
The Atoms “No Goal Patrol” shut down opponents and allowed the fewest goals in the league.
The attraction to the Atoms was the quality of soccer they played, the success on the field, and also that they played American players.
They rolled through the playoffs, qualifying for the championship game by ripping the Toronto Metros, 3-0. That set up a final with the Dallas Tornado, winners over the Cosmos.
In the final, Dallas’ John Best, who was the one-time star of the Philadelphia Spartans, knocked a ball into his own team’s goal for an ‘own goal.” The Atoms got a clincher in the last five minutes, and the championship was their’s.
It marked the first time an expansion team had won the NASL championship in its inaugural season.
Sports Illustrated wrote about the Atoms, and Rigby became the first soccer player to grace the magazine’s cover. The SI story declared “Soccer Goes American”.
The NASL grew, attracting some of the world’s top players, including the Cosmos signing of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
Pele’s contract included a clause that obligated the Cosmos to surround him with world class players. The talent race began, and even in Philadelphia, that impacted the number of American in the Atoms’ starting lineup.
The Atoms continued for two more seasons. Rigby and Smith were sold to the Cosmos. Casey Bahr played only that first season. His brother Chris, a three-time All-America who played for his father at Penn State, was signed the next year.
In 1973 the Atoms faded in the second half of the season. No postseason magic in the second season.
Despite Chris Bahr’s 11 goals which set a new league mark for an American player in a single season, the Atoms didn’t win enough in 1975. In many ways, in two seasons the Atoms had lost their identify. Only a handful of players from the “Summer of ’73” remained at the end of 1975.
Attendance had dropped to 6,849 and by then McCloskey had become discouraged with the losses his bank account was suffering.
The Atoms held a “yard sale” for players, and even Miller had left the club to become the new head coach of the Dallas Tornado. By the end of the year the beginning of the end was in sight.
On July 2 the Atoms drew a crowd of 1,776 for a home game and 15 days later attracted over 25,000 for a Cosmos game. Most of those came to see Pele, not the Atoms.
The season ended with the Atoms out of the playoffs by 34 points. The glory days were long gone.
The franchise had been sold to United Club of Jalisco in Guadalajara in Mexico, and there had been talk of moving the franchise to San Antonio, Tx.
That never happened. The NASL was slipping, and placed the once-successful Atoms in receivership.
In 1978 soccer was back in Philadelphia in the franchise known as the Philadelphia Fury, with a roster list of owners that included wealthy investors from Rock & Roll, including Peter Frampton and Yes keyboadist Rick Wakeman.
But that adventure only lasted three seasons, but that’s another story for another time.
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