Soccer franchise coming to Chester

February 27, 2008 1:35:25 PM PST
Like so many errant free kicks, professional soccer always missed the mark in Philadelphia. The Atoms won the North American Soccer League title in their inaugural season in 1973, but folded after four seasons of plunging attendance and win totals. The NASL's Fury arrived two years later, but relocated after three seasons of finding victories and fans tough to come by.

Despite those failures, Major League Soccer is set to bring the sport back to Philadelphia, convinced the time is right and the struggling city of Chester is the right location for its 16th team.

The league is expected to award the area an expansion franchise that will start play in the 2010 season at a news conference in Chester on Thursday.

"Having grown up in the soccer community of Philadelphia, I know that there isn't a city more starved for the world's game," said Chris Albright of the New England Revolution and a member of the U.S. National team.

Jon Conway, who grew up in nearby Aston and is now goalkeeper for the New York RedBulls, agreed.

"The Philadelphia area has a great youth soccer movement that gets a lot of local support," Conway said in a statement from Austria, where the Red Bulls are holding preseason camp. "Now they will have a professional team that they can root for."

Even Philly's soccer old-timers agree that the time for a local pro team has come.

"Philadelphia has a great soccer history and should be in that professional league, there is no doubt about that," said 80-year-old Philly native Walter Bahr, a member of the 1950 U.S. World Cup team who was credited with the assist that beat England.

Philadelphia's ethnic soccer clubs have a long, storied history, but the area has never sustained a pro soccer club for more than a few seasons.

"Timing in life is everything, and I think the timing for Major League Soccer has come," said Nick Sakiewicz, a founding executive of MLS and a member of the new franchise ownership group. "Those leagues back then did a lot to seed the ground for Major League soccer being successful."

Pro soccer's first season in Philly was its best. The Atoms opened with a flurry, going 9-2-8 in their first season and, behind the standout play of local goalkeeper Bob Rigby, won the NASL title in their first year.

The team never had another winning season, finishing 35-41-9. Their attendance dropped from an average of 11,500 in year one at Veterans Stadium to 5,900 in their fourth - and final - season at Franklin Field.

The Fury played to a mostly empty Veterans Stadium when they opened play in 1978. They never had a winning season, going 32-60, and drew just an average of 4,400 in 1980, their final season.

The MLS, founded in 1996, seems to have a winning formula that has helped fuel steady growth. San Jose is scheduled to begin play in the league this year and Seattle is expected to start in 2009. A big part of the success has been new, smaller stadiums used almost exclusively for soccer.

"They have found their niche," said Chris Bahr, the Atoms NASL Rookie of the Year in 1975 who went on to win two Super Bowl titles kicking with the Oakland Raiders.

Sakiewicz believes much has changed in the nearly 30 years since the last franchise failed in the area.

"There is a whole generation of soccer Americans who have grown up in this country as a result of the NASL, and the confluence of the ethnic population that brings soccer traditions with it to this country, predominantly Spanish speaking, didn't exist pre-1980," he said.

The new franchise will play in a planned 18,500-seat stadium on the Delaware River waterfront, part of a $414 million redevelopment project for the long-downtrodden city of Chester. A slots casino opened in the city in January as part of a harness racing track.

"The entire waterfront development - which will bring both construction jobs and permanent jobs to a city where they are truly needed - is an exciting project for Chester," said Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. "Bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to the city is the final piece that makes the project complete."

Rigby, now a counselor at a local high school, believes there is no better location for the team to play.

"The Chester location, as much controversy as it brings up, is a great location," said Rigby, the Atoms goalkeeper who was named NASL MVP in the team's title season of '73. "The base for this team will be southeastern Pennsylvania, south Jersey and Delaware. When we played in Philadelphia, the city was the core of things."

Rigby said the MLS awarding the franchise to the Philadelphia ownership group instead of to the traditional soccer hotbed of St. Louis, the other city seeking a franchise, speaks volumes in terms of the local group.

"If there is one thing that this league does, they are tremendously prudent about their expansion model," Rigby said.