Major League Soccer's Partnership with Special Olympics Influenced by Colorado

Rapids and Special Olympics Colorado worked together to create inaugural program

On Monday, MLS WORKS, Major League Soccer’s community outreach initiative, announced a partnership with Special Olympics to bring soccer, to more athletes with intellectual disabilities, an expansion of a program that was largely created here in Colorado. Now expanding to many more MLS clubs around North America, the partnership will promote awareness, respect, inclusion and acceptance of Special Olympics athletes throughout the soccer community.

Unique to this partnership is an exchange program for Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer teams, comprised of players both with and without intellectual disabilities, and supported by their respective home-state MLS clubs. These teams will receive training from MLS players and coaches, and travel to other MLS markets, where they can train alongside their Special Olympics counterparts and play matches in their respective MLS clubs’ uniforms.

Special Olympics Colorado and the Colorado Rapids have been some of the pioneers in getting this concept developed and off the ground early. In 2012, the Rapids and SOCO partnered with their counterparts in Seattle, Washington. The program expanded in 2013 to span over two months of regular training and integration within the Rapids organization, and was highlighted by three different weekend exchange competitions and social activities with teams from Seattle, Portland and Dallas.

“The Rapids Special Olympics Unified soccer partnership has played a significant role in enhancing soccer skills and competition for our athletes, partners and coaches selected for this prestigious team,” said Mindy Watrous, President and CEO of Special Olympics Colorado. “We are honored to partner with such a first-class franchise and for our athletes to receive coaching, encouragement and acceptance from the Rapids team and front office. We look forward to other states building a relationship with their MLS team so that more Special Olympics programs nationwide can see what a difference this type of partnership can mean when growing a team sport and expanding the impact our Special Olympics Unified Sports approach.”

The successful launch of the program in Colorado was made possible through funding and in-kind support from Kroenke Sports Charities’ Teammates for Kids grant, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Coca-Cola, adidas and the Colorado Rapids.

“The Colorado Rapids’ collaboration with Special Olympics Colorado has created a lifetime of memories for the athletes, who had the chance to compete like all Major League Soccer players,” said Jeff Jacobsen, Vice President, Colorado Rapids. “In the spirit of a true partnership, everyone at our club received as much from these amazing athletes as we gave to them. We look forward to continuing to grow the game of soccer on all levels though programs like these, helping create a love of the game and positively impacting individuals throughout our community.”

While many MLS clubs have relationships with their local Special Olympics programs, including Unified teams supported by Portland Timbers FC, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution, and FC Dallas this season, the Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders FC have been instrumental in growing the Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer exchange program.

“The pioneer programs in Colorado and Seattle have shown what a profound impact this collaboration can have on awareness and involvement in Special Olympics Unified Sports soccer programing. Their commendable dedication to this campaign has set a high standard and we look forward working closely with Special Olympics to replicate that success in MLS markets across North America,” said JoAnn Neale, Chief Administrative Officer at MLS.

Now, with the partnership expanding, the support from MLS will help raise awareness about the opportunities available to athletes with intellectual disabilities, increasing the number of participants, coaches, and fans needed to grow the sport of soccer within Special Olympics North America programs.

“This partnership, between two global leaders in sport, represents an extraordinary opportunity to bring the sport of soccer to many more athletes, both with and without intellectual disabilities, and introduce Special Olympics to MLS fans everywhere,” said Bob Gobrecht, President and Managing Director of Special Olympics North America. Gobrecht added, “MLS and Special Olympics share the value of improving the lives of all people through sport, and this partnership demonstrates that Major League Soccer recognizes and respects the legitimate sport abilities, and potential, of Special Olympics athletes.”

For more information on the Colorado Rapids and Special Olympics Colorado, please click here.