The way Tom McCloskey remembers it, he was in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl last January with eight friends and no tickets. He was standing in a hotel lobby when Lamar Hunt, the Texas oil millionaire who has a weakness for new sports enterprises, learned of his problem. Lamar pulled nine tickets out of his pocket, fanned himself with them and said, "How would you like to have a soccer franchise in Philadelphia?" So much for what McCloskey thought nine Super Bowl tickets were worth.
McCloskey is in the construction business. Several years earlier he built the stadium where the new Philadelphia Atoms, the expansion team he agreed to start, would play their home games. Now, fresh back in Philadelphia from the Super Bowl, he had a team to build. With hardly a thought, McCloskey appointed Bob Ehlinger, a marketing vice-president in his firm, as general manager of his soccer club. Ehlinger obviously was qualified for the honor since he had been running up and down playing fields for more than 20 years as a college football official. While he had never seen a soccer game, he was bound to know a lot about running up and down.
Next, Ehlinger and McCloskey reasoned, they had to hire a coach, preferably one from the United States, which would give Philadelphia the only native-born coach in the North American Soccer League. The two approached Al Miller from Hartwick College in upstate New York. Twice Miller had been an All-America soccer player at East Stroudsburg State in Pennsylvania and his record at Hartwick had been outstanding. Miller was dubious about his professional chances at first, but became convinced McCloskey meant business after the owner broke a window in his house while trying to kick a ball past his son. Miller was moved to join the organization.
First off, Miller was sent to England to find players but also he was asked to recruit all the Americans he could, which suited him fine. He dug up the good college players he had seen, and as his first draft choice grabbed Bob Rigby (see cover), an electrically fast goalkeeper from East Stroudsburg State.
September 2, 1973
Eventually, the Atoms went to England to train and borrowed several players from Southport for the American season, which ends as the English one begins. The Atoms came back for their league opener against St. Louis and lost. Well, what could you expect from an expansion team?
Not, certainly, what actually happened. Philadelphia lost only one more game of the next 21, took its division, led the league in defense, led the league in attendance and was second to Dallas in scoring as Rigby set a record for NASL goalkeepers and Miller was voted Coach of the Year.
And last week the Atoms were in Dallas to play for the NASL championship against Hunt's Dallas Tornado, a team that won the whole thing in 1971 and went to the semifinals last year. The Atoms beat Toronto in Philadelphia to get into the big game, and their fans gave them a standing ovation for several minutes and sang Auld Lang Syne, which, considering the short history of the team, was a strange thing to do, even if it showed a lot of heart.
Although the Tornado had tied once and lost one to Philadelphia during the season, Dallas seemed to have an edge. The team had been together a lot longer, and the game was to be played at Texas Stadium in Irving, a colossal sports palace out in the suburbs where schoolboy soccer has begun to flourish. Although the Tornado franchise still loses money, it has more than once outdrawn the new Dallas-Fort Worth major league baseball team when the clubs played on the same night only a few miles apart. And by finishing ahead of Philadelphia in points, Dallas not only got to operate at home but, more important, got to pick the date of the game.
Dallas General Manager Joe Echelle settled on Aug. 25, which just happened to be the day Philadelphia's two scoring stars, Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt, were due back in England to start their season for Southport. Luckily, one South-port player on loan, Fullback Chris Dunleavy, had been suspended in England for the first two games of the season. He would be available for the NASL championship. But with Provan and Fryatt gone, Miller had to fiddle with his lineup. He put six native Americans in as starters, one of whom, Bill Straub, was a rookie who had not played a single minute for Philadelphia. Straub was supposed to be a defensive player, but Miller stuck him in the front line.
The Tornado itself had lost three loan players and Coach Ron Newman had been forced to shift his own lineup since two of the three were forwards. His remaining regular forward was the NASL's Rookie of the Year, Kyle Rote Jr. Dunleavy was assigned to guard him.
Rote is a very pleasant young man to be around, a first-year ministry student at SMU, son of a football hero from SMU and the New York Giants. Kyle Jr. works as public-relations man for the Tornado to add to the rather humble salaries paid to NASL players (averaging about $3,000 for the five-month season). John Best, the defensive leader of the Tornado, is a film and photo model. Goalkeeper Ken Cooper is an instructor at soccer summer camps. Forward Jim Benedek is a land appraiser. Middleman Bob Ridley is a tennis teacher. And so forth. They all have to do something besides play soccer.
Rote was a high school football star in Texas before he decided to become a soccer player at Sewanee, and by midweek before the championship game he was getting nervous in a way he had never experienced in football.
"Football is worse to worry about," Rote said. "In football you know you're gonna get hit on every play. In soccer you'll get hit, but what you've got to prepare for is the running and the skills.
"A soccer player is finicky, like a golfer. His diet has to be right. He's got to be full of energy. Early in the week before a game, I eat a lot of protein to build solid weight, not liquid weight. The night before a game I eat Italian food to get carbohydrates for quick energy. Just before a game I eat a banana to get potassium and phosphorus to combat heat exhaustion and cramps.
"I'll tell you," he said, "during a game at Texas Stadium I've run seven to nine miles and lost about 12 pounds. After the game I'll go into the tunnel so the fans can't see me, and then I'll have to sit down and try to breathe. It's like the marathon runners—after the 20th mile they say what the heck am I doing here?"
At 6 feet and 180 pounds Rote is large for a front-line soccer player. He is not yet as skilled as John Best, the Tornado defenseman and its certified All-Star, but he has been a dream for the franchise. "If a scenario writer had invented Kyle Rote Jr., you wouldn't have believed it," said Bill McNutt, the fruitcake king from Corsicana, Texas, while driving along an expressway one afternoon in his black Rolls-Royce. McNutt, Hunt's partner in ownership of the Tornado, sells more than 2,500,000 pounds of fruitcake a year by mail and got into soccer because Lamar asked him to.
"When we started all this in 1967, there were 11 amateur soccer clubs in Dallas," McNutt said. "Now our last count showed there are 1,170 teams. In other words, 25,000 to 30,000 people playing soccer here. It's becoming a monster sport in this country. Lamar's eight-year-old boy told him he wasn't going to play football because it might ruin him for soccer. Until a year or so ago, it was an everyday reality that our league might fold. Now there's no chance of that. We're going right through the top."
That Texas is a football state is a fact that Best has learned to deal with. "When I go to a school to teach soccer, I can tell who the football players are," Best said last week. "They're the guys lounging around looking uninterested. So I do this thing where I put a soccer ball on the floor and say, 'O.K., somebody take it away from me without using his hands.' A football player will get up. His mates yell, 'Kick him, bash him!' They can't do it, though, can they? They charge the ball like bulls, but they can't get it. The football players, the jocks I guess they call them, think soccer is a sissy sport. But soccer has a lot of contact, like basketball. It's just well-timed contact. You can give a jock the hip, catch him in his stride and knock him into the stands."
Preparing for the championship game, Newman warned his Dallas players that Philadelphia would be difficult. He warned them that anybody who was late to practice would be fined $20. A $20 fine would not mean a whole lot to, say, Roger Staubach, who also plays in Texas Stadium, but in a league where the top star makes about $5,000 for the season, the threat caused a few grimaces.
On Saturday night a crowd of 18,824 arrived at the stadium, good attendance for the growing soccer league. Commissioner Phil Woosnam was ecstatic over the turnout.
From the start Philadelphia was in charge. Most of the first half was played in the Dallas end of the field. The rest of it was in midfield. The shots Dallas got at Rigby, in the Philadelphia goal, came seldom and they were puny. For all his jumping ability and his advantage in size, Rote found Dunleavy wrapped around him like an overcoat.
The big break came about 20 minutes into the second half. Rote and Dunleavy had leaped for a ball that neither of them got. Rote thought he was shoved and looked for the official. The ball, meanwhile, bounded toward the Dallas goal. "I broke into a cold sweat," Newman said later. "I knew that this was going to be bad." Best saw the ball drop at his feet and tried to clear it away. Instead, the ball went off the side of his foot and flew into the right corner of the Dallas goal. Philadelphia led 1-0 with 25 minutes left.
From then on the Philadelphia defense was the one and only concern for the Tornado. And that proved to be plenty. One Dallas shot, by Ilija Mitic, struck a goalpost with 12:50 to play, but mostly the Tornado looked like people stuck in brambles.
Then with 4:58 on the clock, Roy Evans of Philadelphia fed a shot to Straub, who knocked the ball with his forehead into the Dallas goal. If 1-0 had looked like a tremendous deficit, 2-0 seemed insurmountable. And it was. Philadelphia became the first expansion team to win a championship in its first year in any American professional sport.
In the Philadelphia locker room afterwards the team broke open the champagne and gave three cheers for Best. Ehlinger, McCloskey and Miller were hugging each other. Ehlinger said Miller had done the greatest coaching job of all time in any sport. Miller said his team hadn't changed a thing so far as strategy went, but that it may have run a bit harder. "Our people run until they drop," he said. "And we played six or seven Americans on our side tonight. This game has got a hell of a future here.
"What was lacking on the Dallas side was offense. Rigby only had to make six saves. Rote was never much of a factor. Dunleavy all season long has taken care of the other side's target man, and he sure did it tonight," Miller said.
"In England we play hard," Dunleavy said. "Rote understands. He accepted me hitting him hard and I accepted him hitting me. I kept it physical and hard, so he would always know I was there. Rote had a lot of pressure on him, it must have been on his mind. I don't think I played such a great game. After all, Rote was Rookie of the Year but that still means he is a rookie."
"What this means," said McCloskey, "is that we've got to go to work and figure out a way to top ourselves."