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Philadelphia Spartans helped usher in a new era of pro soccer 50 years ago

Spartans were one of the 10 founding teams of the short-lived National Professional Soccer League

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers' Chairman Daniel Rooney Public Viewing
Statue of Art Rooney outside Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Rooney owned the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Spartans
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Fifty years ago, some 14,163 people witnessed pro soccer history in Philadelphia when the Philadelphia Spartans took on the Toronto Falcons at Temple Stadium.

The game was one of four played on April 16, 1967 in the first and only season of the National Professional Soccer League, which would merge with the United Soccer Association in 1969 to form the first incarnation of the North American Soccer League.

Englishman Peter Short had a brace to lead the Spartans that day, which involved Pennsylvania governor Raymond Shafer in the pre-game festivities and some last-minute creativity from front office staff to distribute tickets, according to an account in a recent Guardian article.

“Because the Spartans did not have enough ticket sellers, team vice president Jerry Lawrence and ticket manager John Laughlin put rolls of $2 general admission tickets in their pockets and sold 400 on the street,” Michael Lewis wrote in the article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the league’s only season.

Fifty years later, that first game and the 15 matches that followed are little more than a footnote in Philadelphia soccer history.

While the team finished with a 14-9-9 record and a tie for first place in the Eastern Division, six figure losses forced the team and its out-of-town ownership - including legendary Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney - to put the team on hiatus instead of forging ahead with the new league. The team would later resurface in 1969 in the American Soccer League, but after four seasons was gone for good.

Local soccer historian Steve Holroyd said part of the reason the team is forgotten might have something to do with its “carpetbagger status.”

“No one in Philadelphia stepped up to the plate, resulting in the team being owned by the Steelers' owners (since the baseball team beat them to Pittsburgh's NPSL team),” Holroyd wrote in an email. “It might have been that the City--that was used to dominant ASL (2d version) teams like Philadelphia Americans, Philadelphia Nationals, and Ukrainian-Nationals winning titles with teams made up from players in the area--was less-than-impressed by a team of foreigners, with only a token local presence.”

The team’s stars included local Walt Chyzowych, Brits Peter Short and John Best and Argentinian Ruben ‘The Hatchet’ Navarro. Navarro, who had 32 caps for his country in the ‘60s, would go on to win the NPSL MVP award that year and the team only missed out on the final because of a controversial “bonus point” system that awarded the tie-breaker to Baltimore Bays based on goals scored. The Bays lost to the Oakland Clippers 4-1 in the final.

The Spartans averaged 5,261 fans per game. Their opening game outdrew the Phillies-Mets game that afternoon by 5,000 fans.

“The fact they are so forgotten is curious, as the team did lead the NPSL in per-match attendance,” Holroyd wrote. “But, when you are only around for one season, and the next team (Atoms) won a title in its first year, it's easy to be forgotten.”

The Atoms, of course, were Philadelphia’s entry into the NASL in 1973, but only lasted four seasons in America’s top flight before giving way to the Philadelphia Fury in 1978, which adopted the Spartans maroon and gold color scheme.

Temple Stadium, where the Spartans played their home matches, was demolished in 1997 but the field served as home to Temple soccer through 2002. Today, the site is home to Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.