History / Philadelphia Soccer History

Russians, Atoms, and the birth of indoor soccer

Forty-five years ago, a simple exhibition of a gimmick game in Philadelphia would wind up being the first step towards an idea that probably set American soccer back ten years.

It was a mere scrimmage between a Russian team and a team from Philadelphia.  It was a “new” sport- soccer played on a hockey rink.  And both teams would play a number of other indoor exhibitions against other teams.  But the only one anyone remembers is the match they played against one another.

Why?  One has to remember the times…

The Cold War

Long before they were interfering with American elections and influencing presidents through kompromat, the Russians (technically, the Soviet Union) posed a much more direct threat to the United States—in the 1960s and 70s they were the world’s only other superpower, advocating a political system (Communism) that directly contradicted the American system.  Back then, the Russians were viewed as America’s one real threat.

Tensions between the two resulted in a “cold war,” where both would compete against one another in every arena but actual war. The “arms race,” the “space race,” propping up various governments—all part of trying to prove which had the superior political system.

As a result, any time the U.S. played the Soviet Union in sport, it was a big deal. Even today, we remember how the Russians cheated the U.S. out of the gold in basketball in the 1972 Summer Olympics…we fondly remember our Philadelphia Flyers kicking the stuffing out of the Soviet Red Army team (literally) in 1976…and, of course, everyone knows the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Forty five years ago today, soccer got in on the act.

The sport that came in from the cold

Indoor versions of soccer had been around since the turn of the century.  Both versions of the American Soccer League had staged indoor tournaments, and an indoor league featured in Chicago for almost 20 years.  These leagues were more like futsal, however…no boards were used.

American indoor soccer as we know it today essentially began in February 1974. That winter, the North American Soccer League staged indoor exhibitions featuring the Red Army of Moscow club. One of those games is generally acknowledged as the “big bang” of professional indoor soccer in the United States.

During the 1973 NASL season, the expansion Philadelphia Atoms, coached by American Al Miller, captured the league crown in their first year of existence. As incredible as that feat was, the real triumph for the league and the sport at the time was that the Atoms accomplished this with a predominantly American line-up. As the defending champions, Philadelphia was scheduled to play against the Red Army squad. The Soviets would be the best team the Atoms had faced to date, featuring world-class players like goalkeeper Leonid Shmuts; defender Nikolay Kiselev, midfielders Marian Plakhetko, Vladimir Fedotov, and Vladimir Kaplichnyi; and forward Vladimir Dudarenko. As a result, the game wound up being more than a simple demonstration of a “new” sport: it would be a test of American soccer, particularly since the Atoms were a mostly native side.

Miller knew exactly what he was up against, having had the misfortune of being the coach of a select squad that was trounced by the Red Army team in Toronto earlier in the tour. With the Atoms’ two top scorers and three-quarters of its starting defense playing in England at the time, Miller wisely “borrowed” four all-stars from the select squad: Paul Child and Alex Papadakis (both from the defunct Atlanta franchise), Dick Hall (Dallas), and Jorge Siega (New York). Among those filling out the Philadelphia roster were fellow indoor select members George O’Neill and Barry Barto, along with Bobby Smith, Bill Straub, and Sports Illustrated cover boy Bob Rigby.

The match

On February 11, the two teams met in Philadelphia at the Spectrum, with Astroturf covering the ice surface for the occasion. The game itself was played on a field the size of a hockey rink, with goals 4’ by 16’. The match was played in three 20 minute periods, allowed free substitution, and featured six man sides (five field players and a goalkeeper).
The curiosity factor of a “new” game, coupled with the presence of the Atoms (a highly successful team at the gate outdoors) against a Soviet team during the ultra-competitive Cold War era led 11,790 fans to the arena that night. They were not disappointed: the Atoms held an early 1-0 lead, lost it, then kept rallying to tie until the score was 3-3 with about 17 minutes left to play. Then, the locals faded and the Soviets hammered home three quick goals, giving them a 6-3 victory.

(note goal size)

The Russians were impressive. “Their movement without the ball was a thing to behold,” Miller said after the match. “They were constantly putting pressure on the defenders, and it literally wore us down.” Ersatz Atoms Siega and Child also had good nights, collecting all three Atoms goals between them. But the real highlight of the evening was the remarkable play of Rigby, who hurled himself all over the floor in stopping 33 of Red Army’s 39 shots. Moscow coach Vladimir Agapov bestowed plenty of praise on the young American, saying “it is difficult to tell from one game, but on his performance tonight, I think he could handle himself on most any field in the world.”

From a purely soccer point of view, this match demonstrated several things. First, it was a sport that Americans could play: the Atoms, who even outdoors started six Yanks at a time when other teams would use only one or two, were almost entirely composed of Americans that night, as their foreign stars were home playing in England. In spite of this “handicap,” the club performed extremely well. Red Army coach Agapov acknowledged the skill demonstrated by the Americans, saying “when it was 3-3, they were playing on our level, and they were inspired.” Also, as it was a “new” game, incorporating elements of hockey and, to a lesser extent, basketball, the Americans were able to remain competitive, as their experience at those games compensated for their lack of “traditional” soccer skills. Another important factor is that indoor soccer players–Americans in particular–did not suffer from an inferiority complex when compared with their foreign counterparts; while the Russians played it seriously, other countries only dabbled in the game. As a result, there were none of the inevitable comparisons to Pelé, for example, that outdoor footballers had to endure. Finally, indoor soccer, with its obvious connections to hockey and basketball, was a game easily understood by the American fan: with its high scoring and fast pace, it made for an entertaining evening.

An idea

It was this last feature which caught the attention of Ed Tepper, who was among the nearly 12,000 in attendance that night. However, he was more interested in the Astroturf than the game–at the time, he owned the Philadelphia Wings of the newly-formed National Lacrosse League, and had gone to the match mainly to investigate the viability of artificial turf on the hockey surface. Instead of the turf, however, it was the spectators’ enthusiastic response which caught Tepper’s attention: “At that moment I knew indoor soccer was the right game for the future,” he later remembered. For the time being, though, Tepper’s idea for some kind of organized, professional indoor game would remain just that.

Five years later, Tepper would make the future happen, and outdoor soccer was going to face a threat that it, ultimately, would not survive…and Philadelphia would be in the center of that, too.

8 Comments

  1. love this history nugget.
    thanks for sharing!

  2. did bog rigby ever get an offer to play overseas?

  3. This is pretty cool.

    Indoor soccer horizon event.

    • Atomic Soccer says:

      I was there that night, and Rigby was outstanding. A really exciting game, and I’ve been a fan of the indoor game ever since. Too bad it can’t coexist with the outdoor game as well.

      • You should attend the national futsal championships this weekend in AC. I have been to many of these when they were still at Wildwood. The older age competitions are marvelous. I remember seeing the son of Claudio Reyna playing for some U10 NY team. Now I believe he is playing for one of our national teams. More info here:
        http://northeastfutsalchampionship.com/

  4. James Lockerbie says:

    History + Soccer = 🙂

  5. Fascinating story that I fell on by pure chance. Thank you! There is a lot more USA soccer history than people realize.

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