CHICAGO — Forty-six years ago, a Philadelphia professional soccer team won a championship.
That may seem strange to soccer fans who’ve only started following the sport in recent times, especially Union fans who’ve endured a decade of disappointment.
But in 1973, the mood was different. The Philadelphia Atoms defeated the Dallas Tornado to win the North American Soccer League title that year, captivating the city and drawing crowds as big as 21,000 to Veterans Stadium.
The Atoms remains the last major Philadelphia professional soccer team to win a championship. The only local soccer entity to claim a title since then was the now-defunct indoor Kixx in 2002 and 2007.
On Saturday, Atoms coach Al Miller received this year’s Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony that capped off the United Soccer Coaches convention.
Born in Lebanon, Pa., and raised in the small nearby town of Ono, Miller is now 82 and retired in Florida. He and many friends spent Saturday evening recalling his glory days.
“Philadelphia back then was a losing city, and one of my missions was to win something for them, because the fans were tremendous,” Miller recalled. “That was the start — then the Flyers won [in 1974], and pretty soon the Phillies won [in 1980]. So I felt like, ‘Hey, I had a little piece of Philadelphia I helped.’ ”
That Atoms team became famous not just for winning the championship, but for doing so with a team full of American players, including quite a few from the Philadelphia area. Among the most famous were goalkeeper Bob Rigby of Ridley Park; midfielder Lew Meehl, of the city; defender Casey Bahr, son of the late legend Walter Bahr, of Mount Holly; and defender Bill Straub, who scored the title-sealing goal, of Meadowbrook.
“I proved my point that I thought Americans could play,” Miller said. “I put my career on the line to prove it, and they did it for me.”
Soccer has become part of the mainstream these days, but it was far from popular back then. Indeed, there were anti-soccer sentiments in some quarters.
“I was training the media — I was trying to sell them on the game,” Miller said. “A couple of them caught up on it because we were successful. Everybody likes a winner. … It was a tough sell, but it’s been a tough sell all my life. I’m used to it.”
Miller credited Phil Jasner, who covered soccer at the Daily News before his famed tenure on the 76ers beat, for helping to raise the sport’s profile.
Before he coached the Atoms, Miller rose to fame as the head coach of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., from 1967 to 1972. The school reached the 1970 Final Four, and in later years became a national power.
The man who hired Miller had his own Philadelphia connection: Jim Konstanty, best known as the 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies ace pitcher who led the team to the National League pennant and was that year’s NL MVP.
Konstanty picked Miller on the recommendation of an athletic director from another nearby college.
“The guy said, if you can sign him, do it right now, and he went right back and called me,” Miller said.
Thomas Meredith, a longtime soccer industry insider with his own ties to Philadelphia, introduced Miller at the podium and paid tribute to his friend afterward. When Miller became coach of the Tornado in 1976, he hired Meredith to run the team’s public relations.
“He was really my first mentor,” Meredith said. "Now, 50 years later, again — [though] I never played a second for one of his teams — to this day I can say, ‘Thank you, coach. Thank you for believing in me.’ "
It’s fitting that Miller received an honor named for another of Philadelphia’s greatest soccer luminaries. Chyzowych emigrated from Poland to Philadelphia as a child and went from Temple to a long playing career that included the famed Ukrainian Nationals. His coaching career spanned over 30 years and included Philadelphia Textile, the Ukrainian Nationals, the indoor Fever, the U.S. national team, and countless children across America through camps and videos.
“It checks all the boxes for me, and I’m associated with one of my great friends,” Miller said. “We were both pioneers going across America in those days, so it’s very meaningful.”
Saturday’s ceremony also included an award for U.S. women’s national team legend Michelle Akers in honor of her great playing career.