Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team traveled with the first team for a double matchday in New Jersey on Saturday. Kicking off before the first team match, Atlanta United Unified earned a big win on the road against New York Red Bulls Unified behind a first-half brace from athlete Anthony Hernandez. Liam Stuart also scored in the second half to ice the match for Atlanta 3-1. The team remains undefeated on the season.
With the threat of rain in the area, the kickoff time was moved up to 3:45 p.m. Saturday. The teams played 7v7 on a smaller pitch that was the width of one half of the field at Red Bull Arena. At halftime, they switched from one half to the other. Goals, smaller than regulation size, were on either sideline. The match consisted of two 20-minute halves with a halftime break in between.
After threatening to score several times in the opening minutes, Atlanta United Unified, in the 17s' kit, broke through in the 14th with a goal from substitute Anthony Hernandez when he slotted a shot past the Red Bulls goalkeeper. Hernandez had one thing on his mind Saturday because just two minutes later, he found the back of the net again, getting his brace on the afternoon and putting Atlanta United Unified ahead 2-0.
Captain Grace Chaplin was the conductor on the pitch, her passes reminiscent of Atlanta's World Cup winner Thiago Almada. She played one long ball in the first half to set up attacker Xavier Hairston that was on the money, but the Red Bulls defense recovered quickly to block Hairston's shot.
Hairston had several good looks, including one at the eighth minute mark. The lethal goal scorer received another ball over the top in the team's attacking third, but his shot was blocked. In the second half, Hairston looked for his first goal of the afternoon, and struck a firm shot that bounced off the post.
Ten minutes into the match, Atlanta United Unified head coach Marty Jelleme made his first substitutions. The subs connected beautifully, right away leading to two decent chances. Dylan Lenze threaded a through ball to set up Atlanta's All-Star selection Liam Stuart for a shot on goal. On the next possession, Ike Eiswirth found Steven Russell in the corner for a similar play on the opposite side of the pitch. Jelleme made similar adjustments in the second half to give everyone playing time.
Atlanta United Unified's third goal came from none other than their All-Star selection, Liam Stuart. The midfielder took on Red Bulls 1v1 then ripped a shot that clanged off the post and into goal. Stuart raised his hands in euphoria and celebrated with his teammates as Atlanta United Unified took a 3-0 lead late in the match.
For most of the match, Atlanta United Unified did not give up a goal to Red Bulls, a testament to the defensive efforts and heralded goalkeeper Dee Harden. However, New York found their opening goal in the 39th minute to prevent a clean sheet for Atlanta and make the score 3-1.
A good crowd was on hand to take on the Unified match, including family who made the trip from Atlanta. Spectators cheered from the blue stands at Red Bull Arena. When the goals were moved to the other half of the pitch at intermission, the crowd moved seats as well, going from behind one bench to the other to see more of the action.
Overall, it was another great outing for the Unified Team and another example of good sportsmanship. New York Red Bulls was a welcoming host to the squad visiting from Atlanta. Players from the teams visited with each other following the medal ceremony and took a group photo. All players, coaches and staff are invited to stay behind and watch the first teams as Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls play at 7:30 p.m.