The Atlanta United Unified Team presented by Gallagher held their annual Signing Day to kick off a new season, a tradition that brought together Unified players, coaches, families, supporters, first team players, club executives and staff for a spirited and jubilant ceremony.
The event held at Park Tavern next to Piedmont Park gathered many different facets of the club together on Wednesday night. The ceremony took place in a large room adorned like a banquet hall. Long, white curtains hung from the ceiling and throughout the room were a dozen small round tables draped in black table clothes and decorated with a Unified-themed centerpiece.
Under different circumstances, the scene might look like the place of a fancy dinner party, but the night was about sending the Unified Team into their season with joy and excitement. Atlanta United supporters, clad in team gear, scarves and drums like they were at the supporters’ march before a game day, brought the noise. They marched, chanted, and led the Unified team through the room and down the red carpet.
It was the first Signing Day for several club executives, including club President and CEO Garth Lagerwey. He kicked off the event with a few words before passing it on to Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra.
“We couldn’t be happier to have hosted our Unified Signing Day to kick off the team’s seventh season,” Lagerwey said. “Although I’m new to the club, I’ve quickly learned how much this program means to us and our entire organization, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate in the event. It was such a pleasure to witness the genuine happiness of everyone involved, and the sincere connection between the athletes, partners and our players.”
Three Atlanta United first team members joined them up front stage. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, midfielder Derrick Etienne, Jr. and fullback Andrew Gutman greeted each Unified Team player when they went up to the front table to sign their contracts, giving them high fives and telling them congratulations.
"Unified Signing Day is one of my favorite days of the year,” Guzan said. “The Unified Team is not only a joy to be involved with, but it also continuously reminds you why we play soccer, and that’s to have fun. Whether it's at practice, at games, or riding on the team plane for road trips, the players always have a smile on their face. The connection between the athletes and partners represents everything good about the sport of soccer, and I couldn’t be more proud to help them kick off their seventh season."
Each Unified player and partner heard their name announced with a lively introduction from the night’s emcee and the club’s new bilingual host, Joe Freihofer. One-by-one, wearing their crimson Unified shirts they received last week at training, the Unified players received greetings from the first team players, along with Lagerwey and Bocanegra, then signed their contract for the 2023 season.
The audience supplied the soundtrack for the event with cheers and chants. Anthony Hernandez lifted his arms in the air, getting the crowd on their feet to give an extra round of applause. Supporters led a personalized chant for each player when their name was called. For Emma Sim, they chanted in an even, rhythmic triplet “EM-MA SIM!” For player Joe Villar, the supporters called out “A-T-L Joe!”
Lastly, the Unified Team coaches were introduced. Marty Jelleme returns for his third year as head coach. His coaching staff includes returning assistants Marco Patrie, Molly von Eschenbach, Luis Luna and new assistant Greta Conboy.
The evening wrapped with a “We Ready” chant and a group picture in front of the leafy backdrop. In the final moments, all parts of the club joined together. Supporters banged their drums, the first team players jumped up and down to the beat, the Unified players smiled, and their families looked on with pride.
"There are some parents out here that have never had this for their kid, and never experienced anything like this, so it’s very emotional for them,” Jelleme said. “I was looking around and I saw a couple people like that where the joy of having their kid be celebrated like this was amazing."
The seventh season for Atlanta United’s Unified Team is set to be a historic one. The group plays two matches in 2023. The first is against Charlotte FC Unified on May 13 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In this match, the Unified Team will play 11v11 on a full field, which will be the first time many Unified players will play with offsides and challenge them with positioning.
Later in the year, the group will travel to Texas to take on FC Dallas Unified on September 2 at Toyota Stadium. Both Unified matches are scheduled in conjunction with MLS matches and will kick off after the conclusion of the Atlanta United match.
Launched in 2017, Atlanta United’s Unified Team is part of MLS WORKS’ collaboration with Special Olympics North America (SONA) to form the Special Olympics Unified Sports Soccer Exchange Program. The program unites individuals with and without intellectual disabilities as members of one team to promote an environment of social inclusion through soccer.
To learn more about Atlanta United’s Unified Team, visit our official Unified page on ATLUTD.com.