With the ball sitting at midfield of Glenn Warner Soccer Facility at the Naval Academy surrounded by a breathtaking backdrop of the Severn River with beautiful sailboats one-by-one sailing into port, it’s the perfect weather for one of the biggest events of the year. There’s a boat of Navy sailors docking in the distance. It’s a day of celebration for inclusion, for MLS, and for Special Olympics.
With a slight Naptown breeze, Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners representing 26 MLS clubs stand shoulder to shoulder awaiting the national anthems of Canada and the United States to be played. First Canada played, then the Star-Spangled Banner by Special Olympics Virginia athlete Jay Choi on the violin.
Moments before the clock starts, when the starting rosters for the East and West All-Stars are announced, players are gathering their thoughts. Just hours ahead of the MLS All-Stars facing off against Arsenal, both teams are focused. After all, it’s their All-Star moment: the Special Olympics Unified Sports All-Star Game.
“Not only is it a privilege for us and a reminder for us as to why we do what we do, it’s an honor to see these players compete at a level that fits their talent and experience,” Joslynn Bigelow (Portland Timbers), coach of the West All-Stars, says. “It validates the experience and our efforts to see the progress of our players. I’m here to cheer them on! They did all the hard work!”
In the opening minutes of the game, the West team fired out of the gate showing an offensive presence and impressive footwork. However, soon after the East got their feet under them, with speed, a shot across the field by Danny Alonso hit the back of the net. Momentum had seemingly shifted.
Within the next several minutes after the nerves had settled, both sides had their moments with a beautiful shot by Jack Sieben to even the score 1-1. And again, by Sieben to put the West ahead. Quickly, the West team’s athleticism became the focus of the match, with Unified partner Madelyn Hatch (Real Salt Lake) holding down the fort on defense.
“Growing up I’ve always had knowledgeable coaches who’ve taught the importance of defensive work,” Hatch says of her game. “Defense wins game.”
At halftime, the West led 4-1.
With rolling substitutions for both partners and athletes, the West continued to show their skills in all facets of the game. In the 64th minute, the West added its fifth goal. And again, in the 88th minute, netted its sixth and final goal.
It was a beautiful display of skill and sportsmanship at the highest level. Carl Ramey, representing Nashville SC, stood out. Having played many minutes, Ramey netted a goal for the West and because of his play and sportsmanship on the field, received the Spirit of Fair Play Award.
“I felt happy and excited that I got to play with my team and score a goal and do (Hany) Mukhtar’s celebration,” Ramey says. “I wanted this so bad and am so happy to have it.”
For the first time in four years, the West pulled out the win. Despite not getting the win, Marty Jelleme (Atlanta FC), East coach, was incredibly happy with the experience. “It has been an amazing few days,” he says. “It will be something that I cherish for a long time. Bringing together all these amazing athletes and partners is a coach’s dream. I hope to be a part of it again in the future.”
And for the West, it’s simple: continue to build off this performance.
“I think it will!” West coach Alex Ruiz Diaz (Seattle Sounders) says about the tide shifting for future games after the West win. “This is a step for us for sure and whoever coaches next has a big weight on their shoulders.”
All-Star scorers include Jack Sieben (Minnesota United FC), Carl Ramey (Nashville FC), Drake Pew (Austin FC), Michael Burgess (Houston Dynamo FC) for the West team, and Danny Alonso (Inter Miami CF) for the East team.
The Unified All-Star Game is part of the season-long Special Olympics Unified Soccer Exchange program that provides opportunities for Unified soccer teams to participate in a first-team MLS experience. This year's game was made possible with support from MLSWORKS and Coke Zero Sugar.