Forward Madison FC on Wednesday signed 17 players to short-term contracts to play on its Unified Team in a two-game series against Union Omaha of USL League One.
The Unified Team is a partnership with Special Olympics Wisconsin. Roughly half of the players on the new team have developmental disabilities and half do not, serving as “partner players.” The Forward Madison Unified Team mirrors similar programs at schools in DeForest, Columbus and McFarland, who all field unified teams in a number of sports.
The Unified Team, coached by Tommy Jaime, practices once a week in Lake Mills and will take on Union Omaha’s Unified Team at Breese Stevens Field on July 26 immediately following the USL League One match between the two sides, and again in Omaha on August 30. The new signees got to train with the Forward Madison first team following the signing ceremony.
“Our sport of soccer is one that’s for everybody,” Forward Madison Director of Soccer Operations Keith Tiemeyer said in a signing day press conference. “It’s inclusive for everybody, it can be played by anybody. And I think this series of games is a great testament to that.”
“We could not be more proud of this exciting new partnership with Forward Madison, as well as our unified opponents from Union Omaha and Special Olympics Nebraska,” Special Olympics Wisconsin CEO Chad Hershner said. “This is a first of its kind of unified soccer series, featuring clubs of the United Soccer League and accompanying Special Olympics state programs … coming together to champion sport for all athletes of all abilities. Partnerships with our state by professional sports organizations like Forward Madison offer game-changing initiatives that promote inclusion across all levels of sport. Special Olympics Wisconsin recognizes the importance of these unified teams, and we look forward to partnering with Forward Madison, an organization who wholly shares in our mission and vision for a more inclusive society.”
Unified Team Coach Tommy Jaime, who played on Special Olympics Wisconsin unified soccer teams when he worked there as communications director, said the team doesn’t differentiate the players by intellectual ability, but all simply play together.
“Side by side, no difference, no distinction of athlete or non athlete,” he said. “It’s so it’s really about kind of promoting inclusion, bringing people with intellectual disabilities together with people without and showing that anybody can play together.”
He said the team’s first couple of practice sessions have been mostly about getting to know each other.
“Right now what we’re doing is just getting that camaraderie, seeing where people are gonna fit best in the field. And then we’re gonna just build from that continue to scrimmage, continue to build that chemistry that’s so important to the team,” he said.
Jaime said the partnership with Forward Madison can help boost Special Olympics’ unified sporting programs.
“It’s huge for Special Olympics because it helps to promote this idea of inclusion on a really big scale. Forward have a huge following,” he said. “To be able to actually come out and show the power of inclusion in front of all their fans and with their whole marketing team behind them … that’s huge for the movement.”
“it is very important that different people who have different abilities are able to participate together,” said Lasisi Ibrahim, a foster parent to one of the players signed Wednesday. “It shows an acceptance and inclusion … and also gives people a chance to meet their friends. Like when we came in, and he saw the people, his eyes just lit up.”
The Flock — Forward Madison’s supporter group — plans on staying for the Unified Team match, providing support through songs and chants.
“One of the driving beliefs of The Flock has always been that soccer is for everyone,” Flock board of directors member Kelly Ferguson said in a message to Madison365. “That is a large part of the mission of the Flock Soccer Foundation, to help increase access to soccer for the Madison community. We are excited to support this partnership between Forward Madison, Union Omaha, and their local Special Olympics teams.”
The game will feature full 11-player sides playing on the full professional pitch at Breese Stevens Field, with two 25-minute halves, at approximately 9 pm on Tuesday, July 26.