Al Miller couldn't believe it because his team had not played a game yet.

Just as his Philadelphia Atoms were introduced at the Spectrum on Feb. 11, 1974, the Philadelphia crowd went wild.

"It was deafening, I mean, the crowd was deafening," the Atoms head coach said. "It was really, really special. I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I didn't expect this!' First of all, I didn't expect that kind of crowd. And secondly, I didn't expect that kind of response so quickly, it never ended.' "

Some 11,790 spectators showed up to watch an exhibition indoor soccer game, a sport that was as foreign to Americans as the Atoms' opponents that Monday night - the Soviet Union’s Red Army team.

During that part of the cold war era, many sporting events between those two superpowers generated a ton of interest, publicity and spectators.

Sunday, Feb. 11 was the 50th anniversary of the game, which laid the roots for indoor soccer in the United States. If it wasn't for the Atoms and Red Army tussling in the Spectrum, who knows what would have transpired? Would there be a Major Indoor Soccer League a few years later? Would there be a Major Arena Soccer League today?

Like the birth of many sports and leagues, it wasn't necessarily a smooth ride. There were a few intriguing twists and turns.

In fact, getting there might have been half the fun.

The Atoms had just completed a remarkable Cinderella expansion season in which they captured the 1973 North American Soccer League title, defeating the Dallas Tornado and Kyle Rote, Jr. in the championship game, 2-0. What made the Atoms extra special was that the team had two American starters on the squad - goalkeeper Bob Rigby and defender Billy Smith - during a time when U.S. citizens were few and far between on many NASL teams. American Bill Straub, who did not make an appearance for Philly in the regular season, scored a goal in the final.

That occurred on Aug 23. Philadelphia soccer fans would have to wait eight long months until April to see their heroes play again.

Miller said that he was doing "everything I know to keep the American players happy. They were all going crazy, Bobby Rigby, Bobby Smith, in particular, because he wants to play."

The team practiced indoors at an armory as the head coach tried to keep the team active.

While sitting in his office one day, Miller got a phone call that began to change soccer history, particularly indoor soccer history, in the United States.

"I got this call from this impresario from Portugal," he said. "He introduced himself. I forget his name, to tell you the truth. He told me, 'I have an idea where you can make a lot of money for your club.'

"Well, I'm all ears. He said: 'You guys won the American United States championship, and I represent the Russian team that won the Russian championship. I'm proposing that we put a game together in the United States because I think the way the climate is, every American would like to see what a real live Russian looks like.' That was his opening line."

Miller said he told him: "Well, that's an interesting proposition. I said we could do something in our preseason."

The impresario: "When is that?"

Miller: "Probably April."

The impresario: "Oh, no, no. No, I'm talking about now. The Russians are on winter break. They could come now."

Miller: "We don't even have our team together."

Which the gentleman on the other end of the line didn't understand at all, said Miller, who added that the Atoms used several loan players from English teams on their roster, and they weren’t with the squad.

"No one will buy a ticket for an outdoor game in February in Philadelphia," Miller said.  "He couldn't comprehend it."

Miller told the promoter: "But thanks anyway. If they're interested in the game in April, I'd love to do an exhibition game in our stadium. It would be a great way for us to start the season."

While Miller didn't remember the impresario’s name, he certainly didn't forget how persistent he was in trying to set up a match.

This promoter called for six to eight weeks in a row, trying to convince Miller to schedule an outdoor game.

"I kept saying, 'Oh, no, we can't. I'm sorry. We can't do it. Nobody will come,' " Miller said. "He just couldn't he couldn't grasp that we don't play year-round."

Regardless, this impresario continued to hound the Atoms coach.

"You got to do this," he told Miller. "This is a tremendous opportunity for you to make money for your club."

Of course, Miller realized that there was the flip side of the coin. "I knew that he was also thinking about making money for himself," he said.

Miller came up with the idea of playing an indoor soccer game. He explained the rules. It was a six-a-side game that was played in a hockey arena. The NASL had held two experimental games in Atlanta. Games were split into three 20-minute periods, just like hockey. Goals were four feet high and 16 feet wide, quite different from today's eight by 14 feet goals.

"I had a very strong interest in indoors," Miller said. "I started collegiate indoor tournaments at Hartwick [College in Oneonta, N.Y.]. They were really, really successful and drew a lot of people to the game. The players loved it. It was great."

The Portuguese gentleman said: "That sounds interesting. Let me talk to them."

Within 24 hours, he called Miller back. "It's a go," the impresario said.

The Atoms agreed to pay for the Red Army team’s hotel expenses and give the Soviets a few thousand dollars for their flight.

As it turned out, the Red Army wound up playing three games in North America. On Feb. 7, the Soviet side bested the NASL all-stars, 8-4, in front of a crowd of 11,535 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Miller coached the NASL squad (On Feb. 13, the Red Army went on to defeat the host St. Louis Stars before 12,241 spectators).

"I couldn't believe what was happening in front of me," Dallas Tornado goalkeeper Ken Cooper told the Toronto Star. "Those legs ... In my soccer career, I've never seen legs like it. Tree stumps, they were. Muscles and then more muscles."

Four days later, the Atoms and the Red Army squared off at the Spectrum. Philadelphia had four guest players, including Jorge Siega (New York Cosmos), who scored twice, and Paul Child (San Jose Earthquakes), who tallied once. The game was tied at 3-3 at 5:59 of the final period before the Soviets scored three successive times to register a 6-3 victory. The Boston Minutemen's Alec Papadakis, who became CEO of the United Soccer League, also was a guest player.

"Their movement without the ball was a thing to behold," Miller was quoted by the Camden Courier-Post. "They were constantly putting pressure on the defenders, and it literally wore us down."

Soviet coach Vladimir Agapov was impressed with Rigby. "The goalie was very good, the Americanskies' best player," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Some five decades later, Miller still was enthusiastic about the game.

"The fans were electric," he said. "They were so freaking excited. They [the Soviets] were so much better than us. They were fit, which our guys weren't. Their technical level was so far superior to ours. But the game was a resounding success.

"It was one of those euphoric nights that administrator or coach puts a game together, and it all comes together and is successful in every measure, except winning the game. I have to admit I wasn't upset losing a game because I felt like there's no way we were prepared for this, with our guys being off-season."

Despite the loss, the Atoms' locker room at the Spectrum was raucous.

"The media was just buzzing," Miller said. "I mean they were on fire. They had they given us some good coverage. 'What a great idea you came up with, Al. Will we see more of this?' Everything was positive."

Two gentlemen walked up to Miller and introduced themselves - Earl Foreman and Ed Tepper. Tepper had just been in Toronto along with attorney David Natale, where they had been awarded a Philadelphia franchise in the newly formed National Lacrosse League.

"I got a phone call from a writer," Tepper said. "He says, ‘You won't believe this. There's going to be 13,000 people at an indoor soccer game.’ I want you to come and see.' I didn't have the faintest idea of what indoor soccer was."

Yet, Tepper made sure he attended the game.

"Earl Foreman introduced me to Ed and himself by telling me that he was Dr. J's agent-lawyer," Miller said, referring to Julius Erving, considered by many to be the best basketball player of his era. "Well, that's pretty good credentials. He goes, 'We really enjoyed that event. That was a great event.' "

This is how Miller remembered the conversation:

Foreman: "What are you going to do with this game?"

Miller: "I don't understand the question."

Foreman: "This is a hell of a sport. What are you going to do with it?"

Miller: "Well, I'm not going to do anything. ... I'm trying to keep my players fit. The league has tried some experimentation. Who knows? Maybe this will launch it. Maybe they'll consider because we're trying to figure out how we can have players signed contracts year around and be able to generate revenue during the winter months."

Foreman: "Well, if you guys aren't going to do anything with it, we are."

He meant himself and Tepper.

They met with NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam about starting a league, but they could not work things out.

"I said, 'Phil, we're working in opposite directions,' " Tepper said. "All I wanted to do, quite honestly, is to give the American player a chance to play soccer, because up and till then, American players were not playing."

They went out on their own.

"We set up a meeting with 11 owners of arenas," Tepper said. "Earl and I put an indoor soccer league together. The rest is history."

On Dec. 22, 1978, the six-team Major Indoor Soccer League kicked off as the New York Arrows and Cincinnati Kids tussled at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. The Arrows recorded a 7-2 victory, which started the team to the first of four consecutive championships.

"We were ecstatic," Tepper said of opening night. "We felt that this thing can only get better and better. I'll never forget that game. There's a picture of Earl and [Arrows owner] John Luciani, myself and Pete Rose, kicking out the first ball."

The MISL last 14 seasons, folding after the 1991-92 campaign.

After the MISL started, the NASL tried an indoor league for several years, but it was considered in many quarters, secondary to the MISL.

"I think that they may be an opportunity missed," Miller said. "The league never really capitalized on [the 1974 game]. They had so many other things they were trying to deal with. They were trying to sell expansion franchises. They brought four in that year. There were some potential owners at the game that night and I'm sure they were excited as hell. You couldn't help but see the game and get excited.

"I really think the MISL kept pro soccer and soccer alive in this country after the NASL went bust."

The NASL folded after the 1985 season, and there was no first division outdoor soccer in the USA until Major League Soccer's inaugural season in 1996.

"The indoor league was a resounding success," Miller said. "It was the perfect game because the arena owners needed something to fill in the dates for either hockey or basketball. It was a perfect storm. They were drawing like hell in most of the cities."

There have been several indoor leagues that have continued indoor soccer in the U.S., including the National Professional Soccer League (originally the American Indoor Soccer Association), the second and third versions of the MISL, Premier Arena Soccer League and Western Indoor Soccer League, among others.

Today, the Major Arena Soccer League has taken up the mantle of coast-to-to-coast indoor soccer league that includes two franchises in Mexico.

"Indoor, in my opinion, as I've learned this over the years, sells itself," said Miller, who went on to become general manager of the Cleveland Force (MISL) and Cleveland Crunch (NPSL). "You don't have to know the rules. You don't have to know [much] about it. It's just a very entertaining game. Players' skill level is unbelievable in those small conditions."

Whether it is at the youth, adult or professional level, indoor soccer is here to say.

"I see all the young kids playing indoor soccer today," Tepper said. "It's unbelievable, the number of indoor facilities because of indoor soccer. I take pride in it. I really do. I'm so happy to hear it because I really did it for the kids. I did it for the American player, and it worked out."

Asked about the fact indoor soccer is still around today, Tepper replied, "I think is a tribute to everyone whoever is involved. It makes me feel good. It makes my family feel good. It makes the Foremans feel good. It's still here today. Unfortunately, Earl and Natale aren't here today. but sport will be here."

Tepper, who said that he hoped to see some games in person, also praised the MASL current triumvirate of commissioner Keith Tozer, chairman Shep Messing (the Arrows goalie in 1978), and president of communications/media JP Dellacamera.

"The guys are doing a great job in keeping it alive," he said.

Some 50 years after taking its first steps on a winter night in Philadelphia.

Michael Lewis, the editor of, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at