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Through My Eyes, the Atlanta United Unified Team

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About a year ago, I was sitting at my desk at Mercedes-Benz Stadium when an Atlanta United staff soccer scrimmage popped up on my calendar. I had nothing else going on that afternoon, so I decided to swing by and show off a bit to fellow employees. The invite said we were scrimmaging our “Unified” team, but I knew nothing more than their name.

I’d come to learn that the Atlanta United Unified team was a Special Olympics team, compromised of partners and athletes between the ages of 16 and 25. The next hour was full of laughs, memories, and a whole lot of smack talk (mostly from the Unified squad). It was the most fun I’d had on a soccer pitch in a long time.

MLS, in collaboration with Special Olympics, has several clubs that participate in the Unified league. Across the league, MLS Unified teams travel in conjunction with their first-team matches, all consisting of athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as members of one team.

Few months after the scrimmage, I reached out to the head coach of Unified asking if I could volunteer with the squad for their match against Inter Miami CF Unified at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in October 2021. After spending a day adventuring around the World of Coca-Cola with Inter Miami, Atlanta United Unified won their first match since 2017. After the final whistle, water cups were thrown in the air, cheers echoed around the stadium, and I fell in love with this group of amazing people.

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Now, as one of the assistant coaches for this bunch, I see them every Wednesday for training at the official Atlanta United Training Grounds. I went into my first training a bit nervous; the only relationship I had with soccer up until this point was the aggressive, competitive style of collegiate soccer. Walking up to the field, all my nerves were flushed away when I heard Unified athlete Michael Mastrangelo yell out, “oh, let’s go! I was born ready for practice!”

That’s the thing with this group: you can’t help but smile when you’re around them. From Steffen Walker breaking out new moves at practice to Anthony Hernandez volunteering to step into goalie, this team has a passion for the sport that is unmatched. Above all, their love of one another and zest for life is inspiring to all.

Their energy and passion follow them wherever they go. This year’s 2022 Unified Signing Day was a sight to see. Each player got to sign their contract for the year with club president Darren Eales beside them, all accompanied by the drums and chants of Atlanta United supporters. Unified ambassadors Brad Guzan and Thiago Almada also made special appearances, each taking the time for photos with players.

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Most recently, the Unified squad got the chance to scrimmage the Atlanta School For the Deaf at the official Atlanta United Training Grounds. Knowing some basic American Sign Language, I was the referee for the night. As I glanced over during their pregame talk, I saw their captain signing to his team, encouraging them that no matter what happened tonight, they needed to enjoy this opportunity for what it was and not take a moment for granted.

The match was full of hard runs, long passes, and plenty of shots. About halfway through the second half, I signed to one of the students from the school asking if he was having fun. “Fun?” he signed back to me, “we’re losing 4-2, if you can call that fun,” as he ran off laughing.

While quieter than most Unified matches, the scrimmage was full of memories for everyone involved. Our players were able to learn some ASL (they wanted to say good game after the final whistle), and the visiting team thanked us for welcoming them.

As we gear up for the 2022 season - which includes a home rivalry match against Orlando City Unified and a trip up to Foxborough, Massachusetts to take on the New England Revolution Unified Team – the team is improving each and every practice. We’ve gone from trying to get everyone to stand in a straight line last season to complicated 3v1 drills and positioning-focused team talks.

Whether it’s Alex Eberle showing off his Atlanta United tattoo, Fernando Gómez singing “Titanium” at the top of his lungs during practice, or Kelly Robinson constantly smiling as she plays: this team is so much more than a soccer team. They’re a group of individuals that are constantly redefining the landscape that exists for Special Olympics athletes.

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