As the Atlanta United season has begun, so has the club’s Unified team as the Special Olympics squad kicked off its new season with a scrimmage at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Thursday.
And they did so hosting a very special group. The team from the Atlanta Area School For The Deaf, a state-operated public school that provides a language-rich, student-centered learning environment for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, visited the Training Ground and competed against the Unified team in a heart-warming and competitive friendly.
The scrimmage, which took place on Thursday, consisted of two 25-minutes halves. The teams played 7-v-7 under Special Olympics rules, which meant no headers and no sliding tackles.
It was blue against gold on a regulation size pitch at the Training Ground. The Panthers from Clarkston wore royal blue tops and bottoms while the Unified team donned their distinguished gold.
“Thank you to Atlanta United for inviting us here,” AASD head coach Steven Masocco said. “Myself and the players have really enjoyed this opportunity and we’re very excited to be here.”
AASD brought with them from Clarkston about 20 players that included mostly boys and a few girls. Some of players have residual hearing and some wore hearing aids. The group communicated using American Sign Language (ASL).
Daniel Maye, one of the players on the AASD side, jumped up in front of his teammates on the bench after his coaches were finished giving instructions before the match. In ASL, Maye signed to his teammates to give them a pep talk before kickoff.
“I just encouraged the team,” he explained. “I told them no matter win or lose, just have fun. It’s not only for the competition, but it’s for the opportunity to play.”
The competitive spirit wasn’t lost on either side during the match. At one point, AASD assistant coach Luis Naranjo slammed his fist into the palm of his hand to communicate to a player on the field to play harder and hustle after the ball.
The Unified team side also competed hard as the team was excited to be back on the pitch together for the first time in 2022. Teammates cheered each other on from the sideline and coaches pointed players toward the right position on the field.
“It’s very difficult to play a team that doesn’t say anything, it’s a totally different environment,” Unified head coach Marty Jelleme said. “You never heard ‘ball here’ or ‘ball there.’ But they played wonderful. Their goalie was really good, and they had a couple of really good strikers that really pressured our defense.”
The Unified team went into the halftime break with a 2-1 lead. In the second half, Michael Mastrangelo struck a shot that slipped past the keeper. Xavier Hairston also scored a goal. The Unified team won the scrimmage 4-2.
Both teams were getting back into the groove of playing a competitive match. It was the first competition of the season for the Unified team and the first in two years for AASD due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As with any team’s first match after a break, fitness was a factor but both coaches substituted frequently.
It was a strong performance for the Unified team. After the match, Jelleme was ecstatic about the team’s progress and said it was the best performance the team has had in its six seasons. He was especially pleased with his players’ understanding of positioning.
“In the past, they would just all stand together,” the head coach said. “Now, they’re actually staying in their lanes, switching and moving in different positions in different parts of the field. So that was a huge, huge improvement.”
The club announced its 2022 Unified team roster on March 27 with its annual Signing Day event. About half of the team is different from last year, with new players and new partners. One might expect that on the pitch the team needs time to learn to play together. However, the quality of play on Wednesday indicates the team doesn’t seem to be experiencing any such growing pains.
“If they play like this, they’re already gelling,” Jelleme said. “That’s probably the best that this team’s ever played today.”
When the final whistle blew, the Unified team coaches made sure their players knew the sign in ASL for ‘good game’ so they could communicate it to their opponent. In the spirit of sportsmanship, the teams made lines, bumping fists and congratulating each other with smiles and thumbs up. Afterward, the two sides gathered together for a group picture.
It was a heart-warming evening that brought together two special communities, and the performance gave the Unified team a lot of excitement as it launches its sixth season.
“I think it’s awesome because it’s all about inclusion,” Jelleme said. “That’s part of the whole Unified, Georgia Special Olympics and Atlanta United. So it’s just another step in everyone being unified.”