Saturday night served up a double dosage of Rocky Mountain Cup action. Immediately after the first-team game between the Rapids and rivals Real Salt Lake, the Unified teams from both clubs took the field at DICK’S Sporting Goods Park in the Rapids’ season opener.
Moments after the first teams left the field, the Special Olympics athletes trotted out for a quick warmup then went back to the locker rooms for final preparations. After the team procession and national anthem, Unified athlete Jake Whitney gave the Special Olympics athlete oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Both sides huddled and posed for Starting XI photos before kickoff.
A rowdy crowd of about 200 fans stayed to watch part two of the night’s rivalry with Rapids front office staff taking part in the support—both in the stands and on the sidelines. Among them was Rapids’ General Manager Pádraig Smith.
“The Rapids were among the first MLS clubs to launch a Unified Team in the league over a decade ago, so it’s an initiative with deep roots at our club and one that all of us look forward to each year, from our front office staff to our players and coaches," Smith said. "We always talk about our ‘OneClub’ ethos at the Rapids and I think there’s no better representation of that than this program.”
Rapids stars like Lalas Abubakar, who scored an impressive header earlier in the night, Cole Bassett and Diego Rubio were in full force, joining the pre-match and halftime huddles, high-fiving every player who subbed on and off, and nearly throwing themselves onto the pitch in passionate pleas with the refs.
While the entire experience is heartwarming from a spectator standpoint, on the field, the rivalry is just as intense and heated as it is for their MLS counterparts.
It was a physical game that remained scoreless after the first 20-minute half. Unified Head Coach Molly Underly gathered the team, which she says is one of the most talented she has coached, and reminded them how important it was to bring the Cup back to Colorado after a 3-1 loss to RSL last season.
Reinvigorated, the team played their hearts out in the final 20 minutes, finding several opportunities to score but were unable to convert them into goals. With just seconds remaining before being forced to penalty kicks, Rapids Unified partner Louis Persico found the back of the net from a free kick outside of the 18-yard box, leading the team to a 1-0 victory.
The bench cleared as athletes, coaches and staff raced to the north goal to celebrate. The Rocky Mountain Cup had a new home.
“They put it all out there like I asked them to at the beginning of the game, just play with all the heart that they could, and I saw that tonight on the field. And they kept fighting. We put it in at the 40th minute, and that’s a sweet victory,” Underly said after the game.
The winning buzz among the players and the crowd was evidence of the commitment and reverence of the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry on the Unified side.
“It’s great to see the passion behind the Rocky Mountain Cup extend to our Unified squad as well," Smith said. "Last year, they didn’t get the result they hoped against their RSL counterparts and you could see on Saturday how much it meant to them to win this game. We’re incredibly proud of the Unified team and how well they continue to represent our club.”
The Cup was handed over, and the team lifted it in triumph. The two teams got together for a group photo before the Rapids Unified players were summoned to the stands by an eager crowd seeking autographs.
After signing autographs, veteran Unified athlete Colton Rice praised the club's teamwork, which he says was strong from the beginning.
“It felt very hard. It was a hard-fought game, but at the end of the day, it was a fun experience and I look forward to doing this again,” he said. “From trying out for the Rapids this season to being at practice, it felt like we’ve known each other for five whole years in such a short amount of time. In the end, teamwork makes a great offense and a great defense. And who knows, maybe we will go undefeated this whole season, but we need to keep working hard, put our feet forward and hammer down.”
There are four games on the Rapids’ schedule with away trips to take on Orlando City on June 10 and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Aug. 4 as well as home matches against LA Galaxy on June 24 and Switchbacks on Sept. 20.