GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Atlanta United received some special visitors for one of its training sessions in Mexico as soccer players from Liga Cordica 21 came to be a part of the team’s preseason.
Cordica 21 is an association dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with Down syndrome. The 21 in the name stands for the extra chromosome that people with Down syndrome have. Part of the association is a soccer team from Jalisco that was invited to attend Wednesday afternoon’s training at Club Atlas Colomos in Guadalajara.
When they learned that they were going to be a part of Atlanta United’s preseason, the players from Cordica 21 were reportedly so excited some didn’t sleep the night before. They showed up to Club Atlas Colomos enthusiastic and cheered for Atlanta United when the team wrapped up practice. Some of their families attended as well as members of Club Atlas youth teams, creating a decent crowd on Wednesday.
After training was over, Cordica 21 was welcomed onto the pitch for a meet-and-greet with Atlanta United. The two groups gathered together, Atlanta United and Cordica 21, for a photo and together they performed Cordica 21’s cheer.
Then everyone dispersed to play a little soccer. One showed off his dribbling skills to Brooks Lennon. Another paired up with Thiago Almada and they passed a ball back and forth. They hugged Josef Martínez and fist-bumped Brad Guzan. The white trim on their blue and yellow jerseys quickly filled with Atlanta United autographs.
“To be able to spread the brand of Atlanta United, and then see what it means to them to be able to interact with professional footballers and spend some time out on the field, whether it was passing, signing autographs, taking pictures, it was a great experience,” Guzan said.
Atlanta United values community involvement highly. Back in Atlanta, the club has a Unified Team of athletes (kids with intellectual disabilities) and partners (kids without intellectual disabilities) that come together every year to play soccer in an inclusive way. In October, the team won its first match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium since 2017.
Atlanta United has players who serve as First Team Unified Ambassadors. These players attend practice and cheer on the Unified Team at matches. This past year, Guzan served as an ambassador for his fourth season and Santiago Sosa for his first. Guzan said the visit from Cordica 21 gave him the same kind of perspective he has as a Unified ambassador.
“Going to the event down here in Guadalajara, I kind of related to it the same way that they probably don’t get to interact with professional soccer players all the time, and so for them it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “You see genuine smiles that bring pure happiness to them when they’re out on the field, and I think that’s why the game of soccer is so beautiful.”
The key values of Cordica 21 are consistency, respect, discipline, perseverance and care. Teaching these values helps prepare individuals with Down syndrome to contribute to society. Work inclusion is one of the program's flagship objectives. And soccer isn’t the only way these values are taught. Before Covid, Cordica 21 had over 100 different workshops in a variety of areas including painting, dance and baking. There’s even a special class where members can learn to brew and serve coffee.
These programs are led by people like Laura Ruiz, one of the coaches for Cordica 21. She and her brother Pepe have been involved with the program for 15 years. Laura has been working with individuals with Down syndrome for over 30 years, showing a dedicated passion toward inclusivity.
“Every baby that was born with Down syndrome should have the opportunity to play soccer like any other baby,” Ruiz said.
Individuals with Down syndrome are vulnerable to Covid-19, so most of the activities, including soccer, had to pause during the pandemic. Now, players are returning one-by-one whenever they feel comfortable doing so. So not only did they get to see professional soccer players on Wednesday, they also got to see some of their own teammates.
“It’s the first time in a year that they can see each other after lockdown,” Ruiz said. “So, it was an excellent opportunity.”
The group plays soccer and has different levels of competition. There's a range of skill levels, but everyone gets an opportunity to play on the field. Before Covid, they would even travel to places such as Italy to play in tournaments.
Sometimes, they play against youth teams like the ones at Club Atlas. Scrimmages like that are beneficial to both sides because it also teaches youth players about Down syndrome and helps them understand how to treat those with special needs. And putting these players on the same pitch, playing a game they all love, allows youth players to see the similarities more than their differences.
“We love soccer for the inclusion,” Ruiz said. “We think soccer is a universal language.”
At the end of practice, Cordica 21 invited Atlanta United to be a special guest in their upcoming tournament in April. Although Atlanta United will be in-season during that time, the team hopes that the relationship between the two sides will build, and they can find a way to be a part of the tournament in another way.
“Atlanta United, it’s not just the soccer team from Atlanta,” Guzan said. “We understand the power of our club, we understand how big our club is, and that’s a testament to the very top. That starts with Arthur [Blank], and when he had a vision for Atlanta United, and goes all the way down to us and the responsibility that we have when we wear the crest. And so, to have that relationship and to have that invitation from them is pretty special.”
Follow our daily updates from Mexico at atlutd.com/mexico.