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It would be any soccer player or fan’s dream to step on to the pitch at the MLS All-star Game. It would be in your wildest dreams that you’d actually get to play on that pitch.

Thanks to MLS WORKS and ESPN, those dreams became reality for two Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer teams when they played a Unified soccer match at Providence Park – the same pitch as the 2014 AT&T MLS All-Star Game would be played on the next day – on August 5 in Portland, Oregon.

In what marked Special Olympics’ first-ever international Unified Sports soccer exchange match, held in conjunction with MLS, the U.S. squared off against Special Olympics Germany. The U.S. team was comprised of players from Special Olympics Oregon and Washington and the German team was selected to coincide with the MLS All-Stars taking on FC Bayern Munich in the All-star game.

US and German teams together, post match.

US and German teams together, post match.

Special Olympics Unified Sports combines athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team as teammates, using sports as a shortcut to friendship, understanding, and inclusion.

Prior to the match, the teams were treated to a brief on-field meet and greet with some of the MLS All-stars including U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan, whose retirement announcement just days later would make this moment all the more special for the players.

US soccer legend Donovan Landon takes time to meet athletes and partners before the match.

US soccer legend Landon Donovan takes time to meet athletes and partners before the match.

 

The two teams looked sharp in their full kits provided by adidas as they played a 7-v-7 match, consisting of two 20-minute halves.

Germany would emerge victorious after a long, hard-fought match with both teams demonstrating for the crowd the exceptional skill and abilities of Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners.

Toronto FC All-Star and World Cup star Michael Bradley, and Bayern Munich legend and club ambassador Paul Breitner presented the teams with their medals after the match.

Santos Lopez (L) of the US and Andrew x of Germany (R) present JoAnn Neale of MLS (2nd from L) and Angela Woods (2nd from R) with "Play Unified" balls signed by both squads.

Santos Lopez (L) of the US and Alexander Juretzka of Germany (R) present JoAnn Neale of MLS (2nd from L) and Angela Woods (2nd from R) with “Play Unified” balls signed by both squads.

But the game was just part of the week’s activities. Competitors on the pitch quickly became friends off the field, enjoying a post-match reception for players, friends and families, hosted by Special Olympics Oregon, featuring special guests JoAnn Neale, Chief Administrative Officer, MLS; Angela Woods, Director, Corporate Outreach, ESPN; Mike Golub, VP, Business Operations, Portland Timbers and member of Special Olympics Oregon Board of Directors; Kerry Tymchuk, Chairman, Special Olympics Oregon Board of Directors; Pa Modou Kah, Defender, Portland Timbers; George Fochive, Midfielder, Portland Timbers; and “Timber Joey” of the Portland Timbers.

The next day both teams got to experience the MLS All-star fan events, trade keepsakes, and explore Portland. But the real thrill came when the teams were recognized on the field during halftime of the MLS All-star Game in front of 21,000 screaming fans!

Highlights from the Unified Sports match were shown during the MLS All-star Pre-Game special on ESPN2 (watch clip now). ESPN is the Global Presenting Sponsor and Official Media Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports.

Sebastian Stuhlinger, the head of delegation for Team Germany reflected on the team’s experience saying “We were overwhelmed by the whole event and honored to share our Unified experiences with others, to show how Unified Sports can affect the lives of athletes, partners, coaches, families, friends and their communities. Playing on the pitch at Providence Park, dressing in a fully set-up locker room, watching ourselves on the scoreboard…more than 15 fame-filled minutes that Warhol was talking about. Our travel to Portland was about awareness, about friendship, about fun and about a message to everyone out there: Unified Sports improves the lives of so many people, that deserve to share the stage with other athletes to promote their performances and their potential!”

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The week was indeed a celebration of the purpose and spirit of Special Olympics Unified Sports: a showcase of athleticism, sportsmanship, inclusion, and camaraderie on and off the field.

The game showcased the Unified Sports exchange program that is the cornerstone of the ongoing partnership between MLS and Special Olympics North America, launched in 2013. Through the Unified Sports soccer exchange program, Unified soccer teams from MLS cities travel to other MLS markets to receive training from MLS players and coaches, as well as compete in exhibition matches with their Special Olympics counterparts in that MLS market.

Unified matches are scheduled in conjunction with MLS club matches, providing MLS fans with an opportunity to witness first-hand, the talents and abilities of Special Olympics soccer players.

The partnership between Major League Soccer and Special Olympics North America leverages the strength of MLS and the greater soccer community to promote awareness, respect, inclusion and acceptance of Special Olympics athletes amongst MLS players, clubs, supporters and partners, creating new participants, coaches, and fans needed to grow the sport of soccer within Special Olympics North America programs.

Sincere thanks to those who made this once-in-a-lifetime experience possible: MLS WORKS, ESPN, adidas, the 2014 AT&T MLS All-star Game, Special Olympics Oregon, Special Olympics Washington, and Special Olympics Germany.

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