It’s been a season of firsts for Atlanta United and for soccer in the city of Atlanta, and Thursday marked another historic moment. In partnership with Special Olympics Georgia, the club announced its inaugural Special Olympics Unified Team, an MLS league-wide initiative to bring the world’s most popular sport to athletes with intellectual disabilities.
“This is really important to us as our mission,” said Atlanta United President Darren Eales at Thursday’s official launch ceremony. “One of the key parts of our club is to be able to get out into the community and make it accessible to all people to play soccer in the state of Georgia. So this is something we are really excited about.”
In all, 14 players with and without intellectual disabilities were named to the inaugural squad. After a signing ceremony with Eales and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra the players received a special tour of the stadium and had the opportunity to meet first team ambassadors Greg Garza and Mark Bloom. The team will practice at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, and will play two games – one on the road against Orlando City and then one at home in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Club President Darren Eales says he’s looking forward to unifying and breaking down barriers in the sport.
“One of the important things we wanted to do is to focus on accessibility,” Eales told the team and their parents. “You guys are going to be a part of Atlanta United history and part of our legacy, the first ever Atlanta United Unified team.”
Lindsay Price helped start the team, and will wear #13 for the Unified Team. She said it started as a high school assignment that turned into a passion.
So I’ve been playing soccer since I was four years old, just rec league around the Cobb County area,” Price said. “I have a passion for working with kids with special needs and so we found Special Olympics Georgia. We played that year and we loved it so much that we came back and we just wanted to keep doing it because it’s a blast.”
Her teammate, Antonio Guzman, also spoke at the ceremony, saying he’s excited to play alongside his heroes on Atlanta United.
“It’s a great way to stay in touch with my friends and my teammates,” Guzman said, “And also a great way for me to help out my teammates all the time.”
“I’m just really excited to see us grow as a team,” Price said. “We have varying levels of skill and experience, but we have a really great team chemistry already. So I’m excited to see how that plays out and to see how we grow as individual soccer players and how we grow as a team.”
The team will play two games against Orlando City immediately after the the senior teams face off. The first will be a road a game on July 21st, with the second -- a home game at Mercedes Benz on September 16th.
For more information on the Special Olympics Unified Exchange Program, click here.