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When Atlanta was on top of the soccer world...

The story of how the Atlanta Chiefs became a powerhouse

Atlanta Constitution

In 1968, the Atlanta Chiefs were entering their second season as a club. The team had an average 1967, going 10-9-12 and finished fourth in the National Professional Soccer League's Eastern Division. The Chiefs were second in the league in attendance, averaging nearly 7000 fans per game to Atlanta Stadium. The NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League in 1968.

On March 28, the Atlanta Constitution reported that the Chiefs would host their first international exhibition match on May 26. The opponent would be Manchester City of the English First Division. City had recently returned to the English top flight and was leading the table at the time of the announcement. Chiefs' Player/Coach/General Manager Phil Woosnam, along with his player/assistants Vic Crowe and Peter McParland, had all played for City manager Joe Mercer.

Atlanta started the 1968 season at the end of March and were inconsistent in the season's first month. As the calendar turned to May, the Chiefs went on a three game winning streak.

Across the pond, Manchester City clinched the First Division championship on the last day of the season on May 11. A 4-3 win at Newcastle, combined with a 2-1 home loss by Manchester United, gave City their second ever First Division crown. The Atlanta Constitution reported on City's win, combined with the Chiefs' fourth straight win in NASL play.

Heavy promotion for the match started on May 13 with a party hosted at downtown Atlanta's Merchandise Mart by the British Consulate. Woosnam made it clear that his goal for the match was to set the record attendance for a soccer game in the United States, which was reportedly 40,000 for an exhibition match in New York a few years prior.

The Chiefs had one more NASL match prior to City's visit, a meeting with Atlantic Division rivals New York Generals. The Sunday night match on May 19 was abandoned in the 70th minute with the score 1-1 due to lightning at Atlanta Stadium. Fred Brown wrote in the Atlanta Constitution, "Huge bodies of water collected in the Atlanta Stadium turf and the players began slipping, sliding and splashing like so many ducks on a mill pond."

The excitement for the match with Manchester City was rising with each day in the week prior to kickoff. Woosnam told the Atlanta Constitution on Monday:

"We're all keyed up for Manchester City. The whole team is really quite anxious. We feel like we've got something to prove and we feel that we can win."

Allen Hauck, the Constitution's regular soccer writer, told the story of City's surprising First Division championship on Tuesday in a feature. A key to City's rise was the pairing of manager Joe Mercer and his assistant Malcolm Allison. After a promising youth career was cut short due to tuberculosis and a removed lung, Allison joined City as Mercer's assistant prior to the 1965/1966 season. With their success, the team became known as "Mercer's Marvels."

Along with the newspaper coverage, the Chiefs were pulling out all the stops in promoting the match. Team secretary Joan Eaves rode on horseback down Peachtree Street at lunchtime on Wednesday, declaring that "The British are coming, the British are coming!"

Charles Pugh, Atlanta Constitution

Manchester City arrived at the Atlanta Municipal Airport (now the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport) on Thursday at 10:10 a.m. There was a luncheon scheduled for the team at the Marriott at noon in the first of many events while they were in Atlanta.

Hauck interviewed Joe Mercer upon City's arrival in Atlanta and was told that City was not overlooking the Chiefs:

"I'm sure it will be a good match. Your English players will want to show us back in England that we made a mistake in letting them go. So, we're not taking Atlanta lightly, I assure you." Mercer continued, "And, we certainly didn't come here to lose. We know the Chiefs are 'up' for us. So is every team we play. That's one of the penalties of being the champions. We'll get used to that soon enough."

Atlanta Constitution Sports Editor Jesse Outlar wrote about a social gathering City hosted at the Marriott:

"Some of the Manchester City soccer players were splashing around the gleaming pool at the Marriott, others were talking with attractive young ladies while awaiting the luncheon welcoming the champions of England to Atlanta."

He quoted Mercer as saying, "It's great to be on top."

He also wrote about Allison:

"Malcolm Allison, the pleasant Manchester coach, who looks more like a Green Bay fullback than a soccer player, was having fun in the sun. He was chatting with a blonde with a British accent, and she informed the Manchester coach that she was cheering for the Chiefs."

Outlar also talked about the upcoming match:

"For most Atlanta fans the match marks their first opportunity to see a great soccer team, though the Chiefs fare all right in their own league. For sure the Chiefs will have more fans Sunday night than they've had before... and if they give Manchester City sufficient exposure to Southern hospitality, the game may be close."

Cartoon from Atlanta Constitution hyping Chiefs vs. City match
Atlanta Constitution

Tickets were selling at a brisk pace, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Atlanta Chiefs Boosters Club. The Boosters were in effect the first Atlanta soccer supporters group. They sold over 6,000 tickets on their own. Dr. Clyde Partin was president of the Boosters. A Chiefs official said that the advance ticket sale was the largest for any event in Atlanta Stadium in 1968.

You know it was a major event in Atlanta sports when Furman Bisher, the esteemed sports editor at the Atlanta Constitution, chimed in. He wrote on the eve of the match:

"To contend that the Chiefs have a chance is to join in with provincial unrealists. We might as well try to sell Presbyterian College as a logical opponent for Notre Dame."

His fellow editor Outlar gave Phil Woosnam a great deal of credit in generating the excitement around the match:

"If Phil Woosnam can't sell the sport here, it won't sell," Outlar wrote. "Most encouraging factor that the game is catching on is the large number of small boys you see kicking soccer balls in this area."

Ad in the Atlanta Constitution

An Associated Press article on game day noted that Manchester City had been taking it easy in Atlanta, with only one serious training session on Saturday. "We've had a hard season, and we really don't need that much practice," said Allison. "We are professionals, and we can adapt ourselves to any kind of condition," Francis Lee said regarding temperatures in the upper 80's in Atlanta.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Mother Nature did not cooperate on the big day. The match was rained out and rescheduled for the following night. The Braves actually played an afternoon game that started at 2:05 p.m. and was halted in the sixth inning. A Chiefs' official said the field was "water-logged and unplayable."

Concerns about attendance with the game being delayed for 24 hours were unfounded. 23,141 fans came to Atlanta Stadium on a Monday night to set the record for the largest soccer crowd in Atlanta history. The delay did derail Woosnam's efforts to set a national record though.

When the match kicked off, Allen Hauck of the Constitution observed that the Chiefs appeared to be "a little awed by Manchester City" and gave up the opening goal to Tony Coleman in the 14th minute. Jimmy Mundy assisted on the goal, a 25 yard blast.

Atlanta tied it in 34th minute. Graham Newton scored off of a Peter McParland flick in front of the goal.

Both teams came out fired up to start the second half of the unexpectedly competitive match. Player/coach Phil Woosnam came into the game in the 73rd minute, along with Kaizer Motaung. The substitutes combined on the Chiefs' second goal just three minutes later. Woosnam's long ball sent "Boy-Boy" in on goal and the South African chipped City's goalkeeper to put Atlanta into the lead.

City threw everything forward in search of an equalizer, but it was Atlanta that sealed the victory. John Cocking assisted on Zambian Freddie Mwila's goal to give the Chiefs a 3-1 lead. City's Francis Lee scored a PK in 88th minute to make it 3-2, but Atlanta held on for the monumental win.

Hauck opened his recap, entitled "Marvelous Chiefs Rap Marvels, 3-2" with this brilliant intro:

"England suffered her worst defeat on American soil since the War of 1812 Monday night at Atlanta Stadium. The Atlanta Chiefs, an upstart soccer club instilled with the belief that they're as good as the best, beat Manchester City, the very best, 3-2 before 23,141 screaming delirious fans."

The win was definitely not a fluke as Atlanta took 22 shots to City's 10. Jesse Outlar wrote:

"Phil Woosnam had said the impossible dream was possible, and his Chiefs belived him. Emotion and effort had enabled the Chiefs to stun the champions of England. When it was over, excited boosters mobbed the Chiefs, proving that soccer is not only a highly emotional game in Latin America and London. Those 23,141 customers couldn't have cheered louder Monday night if the Braves had won the seventh game of the World Series."

Malcolm Allison did not take the loss well, telling Tom Dial of the Atlanta Constitution:

"They couldn't play in the fourth division in England. The boy who kicked the last goal was offsides too."

Phil Woosnam disagreed:

"The boys did it. They really played well together and it was a real team effort. They worked the ball well and really went after them. Our national league people are not so far from being first division. We're not first division now just because we won one game. That does not make us the world champs."

Manchester City was embarrassed by the defeat and started working almost immediately to schedule a rematch while they were in the States. Joe Mercer told the Associated Press that "he'd like a rematch anywhere, anytime." He called Woosnam in Dallas where Chiefs were playing May 29.

The rematch was not an easy proposition. Financial arrangements, a tight travel schedule of City's US tour, the Chiefs' league schedule, and the Braves' home schedule made it difficult. Chiefs Vice President Dick Cecil told the Associated Press, "They were somewhat chagrined when they left here."

On June 4, the Atlanta Constitution announced that the teams had worked out the details for a rematch to be played on Saturday, June 15 at 8:05 p.m.

After the announcement, Mercer told the Associated Press:

"We don't believe in the first result, so we want to play the Chiefs again. We didn't play as well as we think we can, and people of Atlanta should get a chance to see us play again."

For his part, Woosnam said:

"We can never run away from a challenge. Before we had something to prove. Now we have event more to prove. We've beaten them once. Can we do it again?"

Vic Rouse, goalkeeper of the Chiefs, told the Associated Press:

"We're at least top second division, and if we can beat them again, we can definitely consider ourselves first division. The statement comparing us to fourth division was sour grapes on Allison's part. His team was sick after losing the game. he didn't consider that he's build the best team in England from five or six fourth division players. He bought his goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn from fourth division Stockport County after this season had already started. his captain Tony Book played in the Southern League on a worse than fourth division club. His outside left Tony Coleman was purchased last year from fourth divison Doncaster, and his three biggest stars -- Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee, and Colin Bell -- came to him from second division clubs or lower. He compares us to fourth division while fourth division players have turned his team into the champions of England."

The Chiefs' Ray Bloomfield said:

"They're a great team and I was hoping for a draw the first time we played. But once the game started, we were outplaying them and I thought we should have won by more. These games are the answer to a dream for me. We're not just playing a team from England; we're playing the champs of the first division. I'm not only glad to play the rematch. I'd play them a third time if they like."

Manchester City took the rematch extremely seriously, recalling players who had missed the first game because they were playing with the England national team.

Atlanta came into the rematch without losing in their last 10 games (including the first win over City). Even more impressively, they had four straight shutouts in NASL play.

Allison kept providing bulletin board material to the Chiefs, telling Tom Dial of the Atlanta Constitution:

"It'll be a different game this time. We expect to score four or five goals. We will attack. We played poorly last time and they played well. We want to make up for our poor showing. We'll be ready."

Interest was high in the match back in England. ITV sent over a reporter to film the match. "We're really wondering just how good soccer in America is," Tony McCarthy of ITV told Dial.

In a result possibly more shocking than the first, the Atlanta Chiefs defeated the English champions for a second time in less than three weeks. Kaizer Motaung and Freddie Mwila scored for the Chiefs in the first half to give them a 2-0 lead going into halftime. City scored a consolation goal in the second half, but never threatened the result.

With a short build-up, 25,856 fans came out to Atlanta Stadium for the match. Here's a bit of video of the game:

City's Francis Lee complained about the heat:

"When you're used to playing in 40 degrees and then suddenly play in weather twice that, then it has to make a difference. Atlanta played well, real well, but again we didn't. The heat just took too much out of us."

When asked about his proclamations of scoring four or five goals in the rematch, Allison said:

"I just wanted to get the attendance up."

In 1968, the Atlanta Chiefs did what many think was impossible. Woosnam's talented team went on to win the first NASL championship that year in September. The league nearly folded, but the Chiefs soldiered on for another few years before the plug was pulled. A revival was attempted in 1979 that last for another three years.

Woosnam himself went on to become the commissioner of the NASL and guided the league to heights that were also thought impossible. Even in the afterglow of the second win over Manchester City, he was able to see what the Chiefs were truly accomplishing, as he told the Constitution's Tom Dial:

"Saturday's game was a most stimulating experience for soccer in the US. Over 20,000 of the tickets were sold at the gate. So this was not hard sell, it was just fan enthusiasm.

He was possibly most excited about the growth at the grassroots level in Atlanta, something he took a strong interest in upon his hiring in late 1966. He told Dial that "it wouldn't surprise him to hear that more than 10,000 Atlanta area youngsters are participating in soccer programs this summer."

While the Chiefs did not have the staying power of other teams from this era of American soccer, what they accomplished in Atlanta can not be underestimated. In a city that had a handful of high schools with soccer programs in 1966 and no organized youth programs, the Chiefs really planted the seeds in Atlanta soccer that are now blooming today.