Special Olympics, MLS unite for unique soccer experience
FRISCO, Texas -- Roy Bayona fell to his knees and pointed his index fingers to the sky.
The move was hardly premeditated. The emotion was pure and true.
The 18-year-old from Grand Prairie (Texas) High School had just drilled a 30-footer inside the right post early in the second half, and his thoughts immediately turned inward and upward. It was more than a celebration.
"My grandma passed away a couple of weeks ago," Bayona said, "and I dedicated it to her."
Bayona is an athlete on Special Olympics Texas FC Dallas (SOTX FC Dallas). MLS and Special Olympics teamed up in 2013 to create the Unified Sports exchange program throughout North America and establish teams that combined players with intellectual disabilities (who are referred to as athletes) and those without (partners). By 2016, the program had grown to include 18 of the 20 MLS clubs.
The Unified soccer exchange program gives its players a chance to train with MLS players and coaches as well as compete against teams from other MLS markets. These Unified matches take place in conjunction with MLS games, in the same stadiums and in front of the same fans. A record 15 Unified exchange MLS matches, as well as an all-star Unified match in San Jose, California, were played in 2016.
More than 18,000 Special Olympics athletes participate in Unified soccer in the United States, and more than 225,000 compete globally.
The Unified program gives players the full MLS treatment. There are tryouts, a contract signing day, green-screen photo and video shoots, weekly practices, authentic uniforms and travel on the team plane to other MLS locales. SOTX FC Dallas players even have bios on the FC Dallas website.
"They get a professional experience," SOTX FC Dallas coach Kyle Schroeder said.
Schroeder, 31, is a former college coach who became involved in Special Olympics through the work of his mother in the Dallas area. Cindy Schroeder initiated the soccer program for Coppell Special Olympics nearly a decade ago.
When Kyle moved back to Dallas after assistant-coaching stints at Florida International University and Western Kentucky, the opportunity arose to work alongside his mother with the Unified program and FC Dallas.
"I thought it would be a great fit to be able to come together and coach this team up, give them an experience on and off the field of what it's like to play high-level soccer," said Schroeder, who also coaches in FC Dallas' youth development program.
PLAYING SOCCER is just one part of the experience. The Friday night practices, along with the travel, sow the seeds for a bond that goes beyond learning back-heel passes and overlapping runs.
"You can see the friendships that build between the athletes and partners," Schroeder said. "It really opens up the eyes of the crowd. It's a surprise to many of the fans what the athletes and partners are able to accomplish on the field. That's really what the whole program is designed to be."
SOTX FCD had road matches at Sporting KC and the Colorado Rapids in 2016. A trip to the beach was a highlight of the squad's 2015 trip to Los Angeles.
"As a team, we've slowly gotten closer together," SOTX FC Dallas partner Matt Cummings said from the team's home match last summer against the Chicago Fire's Unified team. "At the beginning of the season, this person only knew this other person, and now we're a team where we all hang out. I think the traveling really helped with that."
The Unified program gave Cummings, 24, the chance to play soccer with his brother, Joey, for the first time since they were kids. Sibling teammates are found throughout the Unified program. Athlete Joey Cummings, 25, has been involved in Special Olympics for 16 years.
Matt, who stands 6-foot-4, is hard to miss on the pitch, especially when he has the ball. Joey, who is about a foot shorter, makes his presence felt as well.
"I grew up helping out with his teams," Matt said, "and when we found out we had the opportunity to play together for Special Olympics, we tried out, and we both ended up making it."
During the match against the LA Galaxy Unified team in 2015, Joey took a cross from partner Alyssa D'Aloise and was "right where he was supposed to be and tapped in it," according to Matt. Joey nearly tackled Schroeder during the ensuing sideline congratulations.
It really opens up the eyes of the crowd. It's a surprise to many of the fans what the athletes and partners are able to accomplish on the field. That's really what the whole program is designed to be.
- SOTX FC Dallas coach Kyle Schroeder
"Watching the athletes score is my favorite memory," SOTX FC Dallas partner Laurence Fairchild, 18, said. "It's the best. The whole team goes crazy."
The 2016 Chicago Fire Unified team featured the brother-sister combo of athlete Nathan and partner Hanna Simmons. They both attend Normal (Illinois) West High. Playing together gave each a better appreciation of the other.
"It's not really about me. It's about him," Hanna, 16, said. "Seeing his enthusiasm and getting him involved in sports and seeing him develop through the season is really impressive."
Nathan, 18, jumped at the chance to team up with his sister.
"Personally, for me, I think it's a cool experience because my sister plays [travel] soccer, and I go to a lot of her games," he said. "It's really neat to be able to play on the same team as her and be able to do all of the things with Special Olympics. It's amazing being a part of this."
Athletes and partners have to try out, and roster spots aren't guaranteed. SOTX FC Dallas had 18 members in 2016, with the majority having been on the squad for two seasons.
Athlete Cari Freeman, 23, didn't make the team during 2015 tryouts. He was able stay in contact with Schroeder, who shopped at the grocery store where Freeman worked. Freeman regularly asked about the team and made sure to be ready once 2016 tryouts rolled around.
Soccer wasn't Freeman's first love, but he quickly came around.
"I love the game of soccer now," he said. "I watch the highlights of my favorite players, a lot of Messi. I'm honored to play a sport I'm not good at but I'm becoming good at. It's a blessing to be out here."
During matches, more than half the players on the field must be athletes. The need for everyone to work together is the natural outcome. It's often impossible to differentiate the athletes from the partners.
"I was a little bit hesitant to try out just because I had never worked with people that had intellectual disabilities before," said SOTX FC Dallas partner Gracie Hunt, a senior at Ursuline Academy of Dallas and the 2016 Miss Teen Texas International. "I thought that I was coming into this experience going to help teach them and better their soccer skills, but I was in no way anticipating how they were going to change my life and teach me about joy and loving every moment of life and pursuing your dreams wholeheartedly."
ON A HOT, summer night last July at Toyota Stadium, the SOTX FC Dallas welcomed their Chicago Fire counterparts. The players from both teams were given locker rooms, with their kits waiting. The entire uniform, down to the shin guards and cleats, is provided to the players at no cost.
The Unified teams marched onto the field after the MLS match was over. Several thousand fans remained from the MLS match, along with most of FC Dallas' staff. All FC Dallas employees, from the PA announcer to the drumline to mascot Tex Hooper, volunteered their time.
"This really is our favorite night of the year," said Melissa Reddick, executive director of the FC Dallas Foundation.
The matchup was not unlike the effort the MLS teams put forth earlier, with pushing, shoving and complaining to the refs. It was, after all, soccer.
"It's awesome," said FC Dallas goalie Chris Seitz, who stayed for the Unified match with several of his teammates. "They came out and trained with us a couple weeks ago, which was really cool -- not just for them but for us. To see the looks on their faces and obviously how excited they were -- not just to be out there with us but playing in the game."
The match went down to the wire, and SOTX FC Dallas came out ahead 3-2. Afterward, all the players and coaches gathered for photos and a medal presentation.
They couldn't wait to talk about the match. Bayona was surprised to get a chance on goal.
"I wasn't expecting to take a shot ever," he said, "and it went in."
In 2015, Joey Cummings scored a goal in California. On this night, it was Matt's turn.
"My brother scored a goal," Joey said, beaming. "Way to go Matt! I'm so proud of you!"
Pride filled the air the entire night. In the pregame huddle moments before taking the pitch, Schroeder left his team with one last message meant for that match, the essence of which lives beyond anything that was about to happen.
"Make sure you're moving forward," he told his players.