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Chicago Daily Herald
Several suburban athletes with and without disabilities - but all with a high level of soccer skill - will take to Toyota Park this week to compete in a first-of-its kind international tournament.
The inaugural Special Olympics Unified Cup from Tuesday through Friday in Bridgeview involves 24 men's and women's teams from 21 nations, all aiming to be the first champion in the event designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics.
The final matches are set to be aired live at 7 p.m. July 20 on ESPN2.
Special Olympics athletes and peer partners from Aurora, Naperville, Schaumburg and Vernon Hills are among the members of two Illinois-based teams representing the United States, along with teams from Texas and the Kansas City area.
"This is a big deal for a lot of people," said Aurora Special Olympian Ryan McDonough, a 21-year-old who has autism and is a student in Indian Prairie Unit District 204. "Normally we don't get this opportunity. To play France, for instance - it's a big deal."
McDonough's team, the USA Red men's squad, also is set to square off with Uruguay and Bangladesh.
"We're playing countries from every corner of the world," said 18-year-old peer partner Ethan Harvey of Naperville, who plans to play soccer next year at High Point University in North Carolina. "It's really cool, and hopefully we'll get to see different styles of play from these countries."
The style of soccer in the Unified Cup will mirror professional play. Teams will field 11 players at a time and will lodge together at downtown Chicago hotels between games, traveling, acting and competing as if they were in the World Cup itself.
"It's definitely different than normal soccer," Harvey said about playing with Special Olympians who have intellectual disabilities. "But it's surprising because the competition and the work ethic does not drop. These Special Olympians are tremendous athletes and tremendous people. They try super hard."
The top-tier competition is exactly what draws Special Olympians such as McDonough to Unified play.
Members of the USA Red team also play on the Chicago Fire Unified All Stars team, which practices monthly and competes against Unified squads in other cities where the region's Major League Soccer team goes for games.
"This allows for more of a high-level competition," said McDonough's mom, Janine. "And that's what he loves is that competition."
Michael Brennan, a 19-year-old peer partner from Naperville, said he enjoys playing with McDonough, giving him pointers and learning from his attitude. "He's a great player and has a great smile," Brennan said. "He's always positive on the field."
The main difference between regular soccer and Unified play, peer partners say, is the communication. In Unified play with Special Olympians, Brennan said athletes need to be as overt as possible with their directions.
"You have to say their name when you're going to pass them the ball and be to the point," he said. "Like, 'Ryan. Ball. Here it comes.' And it just works out."
The best part comes when Special Olympians get the glory, peer partners say.
"It's great to see people with disabilities succeed," Brennan said. "To be on the field with them and to give them a sweet pass, see them score and see them smile is like the best feeling ever."
McDonough, an ambassador for Special Olympics who takes classes at the College of DuPage and works at Game Stop, said his play with the Unified team has boosted more than his athleticism as a midfielder and backup goalie.
"It's helped me build my confidence more and I'm able to overcome my disability," he said. "I love the feel of it. Being able to communicate with my teammates and have a good time."
Suburban soccer players preparing for the Unified Cup say this is the opportunity of a lifetime to represent their nation with no nerves - just enthusiastic competition.
"It doesn't faze him," McDonough's mother said. "He just wants to go out and play."
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