The first away match of the season for the Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team was one to remember. The team won their match against the New York Red Bulls Unified Team on June 24 in an action-packed day at Red Bull Arena. It was the first win of the season for Atlanta United Unified, and a tremendous accomplishment for the group to win on the road.
It also marked a unique weekend for the Unified players as they participated in some off-the-field experiences and took in a new city. Here’s a look at how the weekend went:
The Unified team approached the weekend as a business trip and had as close to a first team experience as possible – starting with travel. Atlanta United Unified flew on the same charter plane as the first team, departing Hartsfield-Jackson on Friday after lunch and landing in Newark before dinner.
Just like the first team, Unified designated time for some camaraderie and team building. Friday evening, the Unified Team went out for a special activity: bowling. At the lanes, the players stretched out their bodies after the three-hour flight, knocked down some pins, spent time with teammates and ate pizza. Then, they went to their hotel to check-in and view their swanky rooms (confirmed by the ‘WOAHs!’ heard around the building). The night concluded with some free time, then it was lights out at 10 p.m.
On Saturday morning, the team toured Hoboken, a New Jersey city right on the Hudson River with excellent skyline views of Manhattan. Atlanta United community relations coordinator Lina Saul, who led and planned the trip for Unified down to the minute, hails from New Jersey and knew all the cool places to take the team. From their hotel, the group walked up to Washington Street, a lively area with stores and restaurants. Some of the players grabbed some early morning coffee (but no donuts!).
Coffees in hand and everyone matching in crimson tops, the group walked along the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway and traveled down to the pier to catch some of the amazing views on the slightly overcast morning. They waved to New York City across the way and watched the waves and boats pass on the river. On the pier, the group even witnessed a young couple get engaged. It was a picturesque setting for an early morning walk together as a team on matchday.
Toward the end of their walk, the group discovered a soccer pitch right on the river that was enclosed with a chain-link fence and featured a well-manicured lawn that made for crisp passes. The field was named after Frank Sinatra, the famous singer who was born in Hoboken in 1915. It’s clear that Hoboken is proud of their connection to Ol’ Blue Eyes. Nearby was a bronze statue of Sinatra and a park named after the old crooner. On Sinatra’s pitch, the Atlanta United Unified players formed a circle and passed the ball to one another, making sure each player touched the ball at least once.
The team had a nice lunch together at Wicked Wolf Tavern, a sports bar along the river that looked like a great spot to watch an Atlanta United match on one of the many TVs. Soon after lunch, the Unified Team loaded onto the bus and departed toward Red Bull Arena.
Throughout the weekend, storms and rain loomed in the area, so kickoff time for the Unified match was pushed up to 3:45 p.m. With the time constraints, they had to vacate some of the regular pre-match traditions like player walkout and announcements. But it didn’t faze the players. They changed into the 17s’ kit and laced up their boots, ready to play.
The Unified Team played really well -- and members of the club provided thorough coverage, streaming the match live and capturing footage for social media, video and editorial content. Local radio talents Jason Longshore and Jon Nelson called the match. In what was already a celebratory day with the U-16 Academy Team crowned MLS NEXT Cup champions, the Unified Team continued the club’s good showing. They went on to win 3-1 over the Red Bulls Unified Team. Anthony Hernandez and Liam Stuart were the goal scorers for Atlanta United Unified. After a scoreless draw to Charlotte FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier in the season, Saturday marked the first win of the season for the Atlanta United Unified Team. The group remains undefeated this season.
Following their match, the Unified players stayed behind to take on the MLS match between the first teams. Red Bull Arena honored both Unified teams prior to kickoff, and the teams received a warm welcome from the supporters at Red Bull Arena. The Unified players from Atlanta and Red Bulls were able to meet and interact with each other after the match, making new friends and sharing common interests like favorite professional athletes and Pixar movies.
The Unified Teams cheered their first teams that kicked off at 7:30 p.m. Although the MLS match wasn’t quite as successful for Atlanta, it was a unique experience for the Unified players to observe a professional match in a different arena. Following the final whistle, both Atlanta teams boarded the buses and headed back to Newark to catch their charter flight back home. The plane landed in Atlanta at around 1 a.m., and the Unified Team had a full Sunday ahead of them to rest and relax.
Three members of the Atlanta United Unified Team will be traveling to Washington D.C. for MLS All-Star weekend. Liam Stuart (athlete) and Nick Villar (partner) will be representing Atlanta United along with Thiago Almada and Giorgos Giakoumakis from the first team.
Head coach Marty Jelleme was also invited to coach the 8th Special Olympics Unified All-Star Game, bringing together athletes and partners from Unified teams around the league. The match will be held Wednesday, July 19 at 3 p.m. at the Naval Academy’s Glenn Warner Soccer Facility in Annapolis, Md.
And later this year, Atlanta United Unified will go on the road again to face the FC Dallas Unified Team at Toyota Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2. The Atlanta United Unified team will look to finish up their 2023 season undefeated.