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.“These balls were coming down with snow on them,” Newman remembers. “My head was sore.” A quick changing-room consultation sorted out the problem. Immediately, the multicultural realities of the new league were on display. Max Wozniak, a polyglot from Israel, translated for his Los Angeles side, which had a strong contingent of players from the former Yugoslavia. Legendary Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher took time out from early-season Braves action to comment on the peculiarities of the new sport. The two teams’ warm-up routines, he wrote, were “almost terpsichorean in aspect, jigging, knee-bending, tippy-toeing and general ballet.”
Another watershed moment for bringing soccer to the masses occurred the following month when Chiefs players rode on a Memorial Day float through downtown Atlanta. They looked somewhat misplaced in generic red kit, without numbers on their shirts. Newman decided to take action and jumped off the float to kick a ball to spectators.
Everybody was looking at us thinking, “Who in the hell are they? What do they do?” We didn’t have much information on the float, and I said, well, this is a bit silly going down here and nobody knows who we are. So I got a ball, I found a ball on the float and I jumped off the float—something we weren’t supposed to do—and I started playing passes … and juggling with the kids sitting on the pavement alongside. We ended up being the highlight of the whole show, getting all sorts of cheers. That was our first introduction into promoting soccer in this country.
Former NASL president Clive Toye in A Kick in the Grass: The Slow Rise and Quick Demise of the NASL (St. Johann, 2006) lists Newman among the most determined of the soccer builders. “They’ll be closing the lid on Ron,” Toye writes, “and he’ll be talking soccer to the pall bearers and trying to get a quick game of 3-a-side.”
Whether apocryphal or not, Newman elsewhere recalls, when he was coach of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, confronting a caretaker who had lined over a school soccer pitch with baseball markings. Baseball, Newman informed him, would soon be obsolete. As coach of Dallas Tornado, Newman remembers children showing up for practice in American football jerseys, the oversized garments, styled for shoulder padding, hanging down and interfering with soccer’s contrasting aesthetic: “ ‘You know,’ I said, ‘soccer has its own identity.’ ” Newman still refers to an American football as “that elongated thing.”
In fact, Newman says he encountered little antipathy toward soccer until the sport, especially with the popularity of the Cosmos, began to encroach on baseball’s summertime allure. He mentions the tell-tale aerial views from a 1977 UK documentary, Star Spangled Soccer, showing Giants Stadium packed for the Cosmos and, simultaneously in Queens, a few thousand diehards who had turned out for the failure-prone Mets.
Mainstream media has been complicit, Newman argues, in keeping the game from receiving its full due. “Soccer in this country from the word ‘go,’ ” he says, “has never taken a step back. It’s always grown.”
Newman would see some of the most extraordinary moments in the development of American soccer—including coaching Dallas against Cosmos in Pelé‘s first NASL match in 1975, with Tornado star Kyle Rote Jr. notoriously presenting the Brazil flag upside down during a pre-match ceremony—but it all began humbly. After getting off the plane in Atlanta in 1967, Newman and family were amazed by the size of buildings and the width of new highways. Atlanta Stadium developers, failing to foresee future overdevelopment and the resulting gridlock, had boasted that one could drive to the facility without encountering traffic lights.
Yet he recalls arriving at a hotel and encountering, for the first time, the static electricity—a combination of dry air and synthetic carpet fibers—that did not occur in England. “The two kids were crying their eyes out,” Newman says, and the family huddled together, assimilating this new fear.