Fifty years ago today the Philadelphia Atoms shocked the soccer world when they won the North American Soccer League championship with a 2-0 win over Dallas Tornado in Irving, Texas.
The Soccer Bowl win capped a remarkable inaugural season for a Philadelphia team that was founded in early 1973 and became champions of the highest level of soccer in the U.S. fielding an American-heavy lineup with many local players from the Philadelphia area.
The team was honored at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia back in January with the Walt Chyzowych Fund's Distinguished Playing Career Award.
The award ceremony happened to be held on the 50th anniversary of head coach Al Miller getting the phone call asking if he’d consider interviewing for the head coaching job.
The Ono, Pa. native was at Hartwick College at the time and the Atoms weren't even named the Atoms yet. Miller won NASL Coach of the Year in 1973 after becoming the first American coach to win the title and was honored with the 2019 Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award. He was a 1995 inductee into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, where his Atoms track jacket is on display.
"It was the best decision I ever made," Miller said during the January award ceremony of his decision to coach the team that would become champions. "This is a special group of people and it's just a wonderful thing that happened to us."
The team has gotten together every five years with their families to reconnect and reminisce. Their most recent reunion came prior to the award ceremony in January.
Though the Atoms' feat is overshadowed by other Philadelphia sports teams titles in the 50 years since their trophy was perhaps the most unlikely of all. It also ushered in an era of Philly championships in the '70s and '80s won by the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies and laid the groundwork for other pro soccer teams like the Philadelphia Fury, the Philadelphia Kixx and the Philadelphia Union.
The legacy of that team remains beyond the aging photographs and faded copies of Sports Illustrated in the countless contributions those who played and worked for the team made to the growth of the sport here in Eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
“They played here and stayed here,” Eastern PA Youth Soccer President Chris Branscome wrote in a 2018 Touchline article that highlights the Atoms and the teams that followed. “They became our coaches, our kids’ coaches, our friends and our neighbors. A big thank you to all of you. You paved the way then stuck around to keep guiding us.”
Players from the US on the Atoms included Bob Rigby (Ridley Township, Pa.), Barry Barto (Philadelphia), Bobby Smith (a National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee from Trenton, N.J.), Lew Meehl (Philadelphia), Charles Ducilli (Philadelphia), Bill Straub (Philadelphia), Norm Wingert (New York), Stan Startzell (West Lawn, Pa.), Manny Schellscheidt (National Soccer Hall of Fame - Germany/USA) and George O’Neill (Scotland/USA).
The lineup also included England’s Roy Evans, Chris Dunleavy, Jim Fryatt, Derek Trevis; Scotland’s Andy Provan, Jamaica’s Raymond Parris, and Germany/Australia’s Karl Minor.
To read more about the Atoms’ magical 1973 season, check out the 2018 Touchline feature article.