History / Philadelphia Soccer History / Uncategorized

A tale of two titles

Feature photo courtesy nasljerseys.com

On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Union finally came through in a game when hardware was on the line.  After failing to deliver in three Open Cup finals, the U took care of business against New England when an even bigger prize was on the line: as a result, the 2020 Supporters’ Shield belongs to Philadelphia.

This is not only the first trophy in Union history, it is also the first outdoor soccer title of any kind for this city in almost fifty years.  Other Philly teams came close—the semi-professional Philadelphia United German-Hungarians lost in the Open Cup final in 1977 and 1993, and the Philadelphia Independence of Women’s Professional Soccer lost back-to-back title matches in 2010 and 2011—but the last significant title for an outdoor soccer team in this city was in 1973, when the Philadelphia Atoms took the North American Soccer League title.

I was around for that one—and can still remember how special that title was.

And, while the dust is still settling on the Union’s win, I can’t help but notice how different the two titles were as far as both fan and media reaction.

While among hardcore ZOLOs the Union’s win is a big deal, let’s be honest—excitement over the Supporters’ Shield is pretty muted.  This is not a criticism, as much of a reflection of reality: here in the United States, we honor playoff champions.  A team that bosses the regular season, but then fails to deliver in the playoffs, is dubbed a “failure.”  That’s just how Americans think.  Add to the fact that the Shield is awarded in a league that does not play a balanced schedule (i.e., the Union does not face every other MLS team, or an equal number of times), and that—in 2020—the “regular” schedule was anything but, it is easy to understand why we are not seeing excitement in the streets over Sunday’s result.

But in 1973…

When the Atoms took the NASL title in 1973, there was genuine excitement in the City.  The four area newspapers—the Inquirer, Daily News, Bulletin, and Camden Courier-Post, all give banner coverage to the win, breathlessly reporting the heroics of the team as it won the final on the road to a stacked Dallas Tornado team featuring Kyle Rote, Jr. while missing its two top scorers, Andy Provan and Jim Fryatt.  While there was no parade, even the so-called “casual fan” was excited over the win.  Atoms stars like Bob Rigby (who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated), Bobby Smith, Provan and Fryatt became folk heroes in a city that was starved for them.  It was really something special…and, even today, when you say “Atoms,” people know what you are talking about.

So why was the Atoms’ win received with so much more excitement than the Union’s?

Let me clear: it is not because the Atoms’ title was “better,” or that their fans were more passionate.

No, I think the difference in excitement levels comes down to two things (well, three, if you include the whole “Americans like playoff winners” thing): 1. the Philadelphia sporting landscape in 1973; and 2) the fact that “media” is much different today.

The 1973 Atoms were a great story: an expansion

Bob Rigby, the first soccer player featured on a SPorts Illustrated cover. From September 3, 1973

Rest assured, the Union are never going to make the cover of Sports Illustrated

team, thrown together in about two months’ time, and featuring a lot of local players, won the title against the NASL’s best team.  That, alone, is the kind of Cinderella story that all fans love.

But add to that the fact that Philadelphia was a sports graveyard in 1973.  The 1972 Phillies finished 59-97, and the 1973 season would also see them end up in last, at 71-91.  The 1972 Eagles finished 6-7-1, which was at least an improvement over 1971’s abysmal 2-11-1 campaign—still, it had been 12 years since the team made the playoffs.  The 76ers?  They only just completed the worst season in NBA history, rolling in at 9-73 at the end of the 1972-73 season.  Only the Flyers provided a glimmer of hope, finishing 1972-73 at 37-30-11, their best record ever, but they flopped in the playoffs every year; besides, it was only hockey, still the newest sport in town (this was only the Flyers’ sixth season).

But it wasn’t just bad teams…Philadelphia was loaded with bad players.  Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Cunningham had left the Sixers years earlier—the team instead consisted of the likes of Fred Boyd, Tom Van Arsdale, and the shambling carcass of what remained of the great Hal Greer.  The Phillies had only Steve Carlton; unfortunately, his historic 1972 season (27-10) was followed up with a 13-20 record in 1973, and the city had already soured on him.  Meanwhile, a rookie named Mike Schmidt hit .196.  The Eagles had quarterbacks named Pete Liske and John Reeves, which tells you all you need to know…although they just traded for a guy named Roman Gabriel.  And the Flyers—sure, Bobby Clarke and Doug Favell were popular, but hockey remained the niche sport in town.  Basically, the Flyers in 1973 were like the Union is today—loved by a small-but-devoted core of fans, and dead last in the pecking order in the Philadelphia media.

The Atoms changed all of that—they gave the City its first champions since 1966-67 (when the Sixers won), but also gave them heroes.  Fans really took to the Atoms players, embracing the English imports (Provan, Fryatt, Derek Trevis, Chris Dunleavy, Roy Evans) with the same passion as the Philly-area kids who made the title a possibility (Rigby, Smith, Bill Straub).

So the excitement was not only palpable…it was understandable.

Today, of course, the Philly sports scene is much different.  The Eagles are only three years removed from a Super Bowl, and feature Carson Wentz while remaining a top team (well, at least until this year)…the Phillies won a World Series in 2008, and feature one of the sport’s top players in Bryce Harper.  The Sixers and “The Process” give people hope every season, and feature two of the NBA’s bigger stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.  The Flyers?  Well, frankly, they remain a cult—but one that still basks in the glow of two Stanley Cup wins from the Nixon Administration.

In other words, the Union’s Shield win just isn’t heard as loudly in such a crowded landscape.

But there’s also the media.  In 1973, the Atoms’ title was not only a big deal, but it also could not be missed—four daily newspapers gave it extensive coverage, each with circulations in the 250,000 to 700,000 range—with the Sunday Inquirer pushing nearly one million copies.  Today? The Bulletin is long-gone, the Courier-Post relies primarily on freelance submissions it seems, and the Inquirer and Daily News barely push 100,000 in daily circulation.  Instead, today’s sports media is both digital and much more specialized—if you want soccer news, you follow soccer accounts.  There really is no “mass media” anymore.  Simply put—it is just easier to avoid the Union’s title.  As a result, it is just harder to create a groundswell of excitement.

And we’re not even going to talk about the whole “meh… they’re in Chester” thing.

The bottom line: a lot has changed in the past 50 years.  Across the board we have changed our view of sports.  We don’t put athletes on pedestals anymore.  It’s just not “news.”

So, like all of us, I will savor the Union’s huge accomplishment, and look forward to a deep MLS Cup run…and hopefully an even deeper CONCACAF Champions League journey.

But I long for the days when the whole City would rally around a champion, regardless of the sport, and you could see the excitement in the news and on the streets.

3 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    This is great, thank you.

  2. nice article. I liken the philly media not given the Union the time day to political debates. The media is afraid of a 5th team (or 3rd party) taken away precious time and viewership.
    Its sad but the soccer scene is ever growing in spite of the sports media/radio.

  3. I hope that the lack of sports as a whole will help shine some light on the Union! Both 6 and 10 have been giving the U better air time all season. And played the Shield win for 2 nights ! Pretty good considering the normal coverage!

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