It’s Rivalry Week in Atlanta. The club hosts Charlotte FC on Saturday in an Eastern Conference showdown. The week also means an exciting event for the Atlanta United Special Olympics Unified Team. The group plays its first match of the season against Charlotte after the first team match on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Saturday’s match is the first time that the Atlanta United Unified Team will be playing 11v11 on a full field and on regulation-size goals. Historically, Unified plays 7v7 on a modified, narrower pitch. In the past, they’ve also used miniature goals or a frame that measures 8x24. Another change for Unified on Saturday is that the offside rule will be in place. Normally, Unified games are played on a smaller field so offside isn’t usually called.
Here are a few more things to know about the Atlanta United Unified Team ahead of this weekend’s big match:
What is the Unified program, and when did it begin in Atlanta?
The Unified program is a league-wide initiative that began in 2013 as a part of MLS Works, Major League Soccer’s community outreach program, in partnership with Special Olympics North America (SONA). The goal of the program was to bring soccer to athletes with intellectual disabilities.
For Atlanta, the Unified Team has been baked into the club's identity since the very beginning. When Atlanta United joined the league as an expansion side in 2017, Unified already existed in MLS. Atlanta United’s founding president Darren Eales and current Director of Community Engagement Marissa Ahrens were both passionate about Atlanta having a Unified Team and made it a priority for the new club.
The Atlanta United Unified Team played its first season in 2017, just like the first team. That first year, there were 14 members and the team played two matches, one home and one away against Orlando City SC.
Who’s on the Unified roster?
The Unified team includes a combination of individuals with intellectual disabilities (Special Olympics athletes) and individuals without intellectual disabilities (Unified partners) as members of one team. This year, the team consists of eight athletes and 10 partners. Athletes are in the age range of 16-25. In 2022, the team held tryouts for the first time, which were open to anyone who wanted to join.
Like the first team, the group wears matching gear for training sessions. For matches, the Unified team is outfitted in authentic uniforms provided by adidas. During one of the first training sessions of the year, players were surprised before practice at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. All the players received personalized travel bags and training gear.
Unified’s annual Signing Day
The roster is honored with an annual Signing Day celebration to kick off the season. In the early years, the event was held at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, either in the lobby or at the pavilion. In 2021, the program took the annual event outside the Training Ground for the first time. Signing Day 2023 took place in the Piedmont Room at Park Tavernin what was a spirited celebration with supporters, family and members of the club.
Signing Day is a joyful day where families are invited to watch as Unified players sign their contracts for the year, receive their jersey and celebrate the start of a new season with teammates. First team ambassadors and members of the club’s front office usually attend as well. The first season in 2017, Eales and Carlos Bocanegra participated. This most recent year marked the first Signing Day for the club’s new CEO & President Garth Lagerwey.
Longtime ambassador Brad Guzan
Unified ambassadors are first team players who participate in the program, visit training sessions and greet the Unified players on Signing Day. The initial ambassadors in 2017 were Brad Guzan, Greg Garza and Mark Bloom. This season, the ambassadors include Guzan, Andrew Gutman and Derrick Etienne Jr.
For as long as he’s been with Atlanta United, Guzan has been a Unified ambassador.
Is Unified part of MLS All-Star?
Yes! Just like with the professionals, some of the best Unified players across the league are selected to participate in the annual All-Star event. The location for Unified All-Star takes place at the same city as MLS All-Star.
Last year, MLS All-Star was held in Minneapolis, Minn. Atlanta United sent two representatives from Unified, Xavier Hairston and David Wilkerson.
The 2023 Season for Atlanta United Unified Team
There’s a lot of anticipation for this year’s squad, which is rumored to be one of the best in club history.Formatches, Unified plays at home and travels. The matches are scheduled in conjunction with the Atlanta United first team to reinforce inclusivity and showcase the talents and abilities to our supporters.
The Atlanta United Unified Team plays its home matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Last season, they hosted Orlando City SC at the stadium and played to a 2-2 draw. Saturday’s match against Charlotte FC is the only home match scheduled for Unified in 2023.
For away matches, the Unified team travels. They’ll be on the road twice this season, making trips to face the New York Red Bulls in June and FC Dallas in September. This will be Unified’s first trips to New York (or New Jersey) and to Texas.