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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.
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.