The Forward Madison Unified Team fell in its inaugural match to Union Omaha 2-0 – but the match was about much more than the final score.
The two USL League One clubs have both signed Unified Teams made up of athletes from Special Olympics Wisconsin and Special Olympics Nebraska, who took the field Tuesday alongside “partner players” who participate in unified sports teams at area high schools. The Unified Teams played a full-field, full-sided, 50-minute match following the conclusion of the first teams’ goalless draw.
The teams went into halftime tied 0-0, but Omaha scored on a chaotic sequence early in the second. Madison applied steady pressure and saw a number of chances go just wide before Omaha doubled its lead on a 30-yard wonder strike.
Madison’s team practices weekly in Lake Mills, east of Madison, and had only been working together for about a month before its first match.
“Considering how little time we’ve been together, the camaraderie was amazing,” head coach Tommy Jaime said after the match. “They gelled, they passed, they included everybody on the field, which is really important. … I was so impressed with it. We didn’t know what to expect, and they exceeded our expectations. Their effort was unbelievable. They had so much fun. Their teamwork was great. I couldn’t be happier.”
Special Olympics Wisconsin CEO Chad Hershner said the home-and-home series is the first of its kind.
“So proud of all the athletes for everything they did. The grit they showed, the determination they brought. They’re leaving here tonight with their heads held high and a match well played,” Hershner said. “I think this is a great model that we can continue and maybe challenge other states in the future and keep it going because it’s great for our athletes to meet other athletes from other states and have the chance to compete.”
The two teams next play in Omaha on August 31.
“Now that we’ve seen them in action, we can kind of work on some of the little things,” Jaime said of preparations for the second leg. “We know their positioning a little bit better, can work on some of the fundamentals, and just continue to build that chemistry.”
Jaime noted that several hundred fans stayed for the Unified Team match, including a couple dozen members of the Flock.
“We had people in the Flock still banging the drums all night long, which I didn’t expect,” Jaime said. “I didn’t know they were going to stick around. That made it that much more special for the athletes and everybody involved. It was a really, really special night.”