In the first test of the season, the Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team put on a show in front of a loud and rowdy crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The 5-Stripes played Charlotte FC's Unified Team to a scoreless draw on a full pitch Saturday night in what was the group's first-ever time playing 11v11 on a full field.
Atlanta played a competitive match under head coach Marty Jelleme. Partner Maggie Williams showed her defensive prowess, shutting down a Charlotte attacker in the first half. Xavier Hairston, known for taking on Gonzalo Pineda and scoring the winning goal in last year's scrimmage with the A League Team, took a strong shot on frame to close out the first half. Partner Dylan Lenze was the conductor on the pitch, dribbling around Charlotte defenders and setting up his teammates. Alex Eberle showed his technical skills, putting his foot on the ball and turning with deftness, to continue the team's attack in the second half.
And just when it looked like Charlotte might score the game-winner in the final minute of play, Atlanta's goalkeeper Dee Harden came off his line to prevent any shot on goal for the visitors.
Even though there's a fierce rivalry between the two clubs, good sportsmanship was on display. When Atlanta's Liam Stuart ran down a through ball that put him on the ground, he was helped up by two members from the Charlotte side. After the final whistle, the teams met at midfield to shake hands.
It was the first match in program history played 11v11. Usually matches are played with seven players on each side and on a modified, narrower field. On Saturday, the two Unified teams had the full width and size of the pitch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Alex Eberle, Alex Evans, Joe Villar, Grace Chaplin, Liam Stuart, Steven Russell, Xavier Hairston, Ike Eiswirth, Dylan Lenze, Emma Sim and goalkeeper Dee Harden made up the starting XI for Atlanta United. Anthony Hernandez, Kelly Robinson, Benn Barrett, Nick Villar, Maggie Williams and Savion Brown came in off the bench.
The match looked, in some ways, like Atlanta United's first team match earlier in the evening. Unified players walked out of the tunnel onto the pitch and had their names announced. The match consisted of two 20-minute halves. And the two sides wore the same colors as the MLS match earlier this evening.
It was a late kickoff, beginning around 10:30 p.m., but Atlanta United supporters proved why they're the best in MLS and stayed behind to show their love and support to their community. Supporters lifted a tifo to kick off the match and kept up the same loud and rowdy spirit they had in the first team match. Drums were playing the entire 40 minutes of play.
The late start time allowed members of the first team to stop by and watch the match. Unified Team ambassador Derrick Etienne Jr. came by the bench to wish the team good luck prior to the match. Another Unified Team ambassador Brad Guzan was on the sideline, rooting the team on, and even did an interview at halftime to talk about the program.