In Atlanta, spreading soccer contagion at parade rest

Editor’s note

See our article on the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs, “As Good as It Got,” in the Dec 08 edition of When Saturday Comes (pp. 38–39).

With strong endorsement from Mead Packaging and improvising a bit with the uniforms, the Atlanta Chiefs became stars of the Memorial Day parade in 1967. “We were cute,” Newman, pictured at front left, says of the first-generation Chiefs. “We wore these little shorts, we had funny accents. We were cute, and we were accepted.” (Photo courtesy Ron Newman)

Ron Newman came to Atlanta from the UK in 1967 and started to build the game in literal terms. Calling on carpentry and joining skills picked up in Portsmouth dockyards, he acquired two-by-fours and built makeshift goals to help stage what might have been the first suburban match in the American South. As he moved on during a coaching career that led to his enshrinement in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1992, he became adept at fashioning building materials into goalposts, crossbars and corner flags in Dallas and South Florida.

Clustered on arrival with fellow UK imports, all drafted by Welshmen and former Aston Villa teammates Vic Crowe and Phil Woosnam to play in a start-up professional league lacking FIFA accreditation, Newman remembers the first impromptu community soccer practice at the Williamsburg Village Apartments, a network of garden flats north of Emory University in Decatur, Atlanta’s eastern neighbor. Scheduled for 7 p.m. by the apartment pool, no one came. By 8 p.m, they had more children than they could handle.

Such was suburban soccer born—contingent on a promise Newman had made to his son, Guy, future NASL player and MLS coach, to bring association football to America’s youth. At Williamsburg Village they started to play without regard to age differences or access to equipment, soccer-lined fields, qualified referees or coaches. “If you really want to go back and look at the seed of the Americanization of the sport in this country it was Williamsburg,” says Dick Cecil, former vice-president and business manager of the Atlanta Braves, who owned the Chiefs.

Interview with Newman, from Tampa, Sept 25 (50:27)

By 1969, the Chiefs, members recruited for their zeal and future coaching ambitions, had helped launch with organizational support from the YMCA an unprecedented grassroots soccer effort, developing the game from less than 200 amateur players when they arrived to a city network of some 16,000, including 42 high school teams. Crowe, the player who at Villa in 1954 replaced Danny Blanchflower at right-half and become Villa manager after his Chiefs’ service, says the Chiefs organized 448 clinics over that period—including at least two at the Georgia state penitentiary.

By time of a visit from Manchester City for a friendly in May 1968, City manager Joe Mercer could say that “Atlanta is the most soccer-wise city in the States.”

Newman played at forward as the professional game was introduced to the American South on 23 Apr 67. More than 11,000 came to see the Chiefs play the Los Angeles Toros at Atlanta Stadium, the recently constructed home of the Braves (MLB) and Falcons (NFL). Of the match, Newman remembers the curious crowd response. The crowd reacted only after an attacking move had been thwarted, the ball having sailed over the byline, and not during the buildup. In particular, supporters enjoyed the long clearances of center back Willie Evans of Ghana, who, as the first half progressed, began to cultivate the fans’ appreciation by delivering higher and higher balls to the front line.

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