While the Sounders FC were in the middle of their best week of the young season that saw them top Sporting Kansas City 1-0 on the road and the San Jose Earthquakes 4-0 at CenturyLink Field, the kids in the club’s Pre-Academy program were taking part in the Special Olympics Central American Unified Soccer Tournament in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The seven-day tournament started last Friday and concludes on Thursday with the championship match. The US squad features eight Special Olympics athletes from Seattle and Portland and eight Sounders FC developmental players, who serve as the Unified Partners for the tournament.
Already they have impressed their opposition in the tournament, going 2-1-0 in their three-team group to earn a spot in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“Our guys have pulled together well. I think everyone is playing to their capabilities or better,” said Sounders FC team operations assistant Dennis Sanchez, who serves as coach for the tournament. “We just have to keep working together and hope for a positive result.”
Team USA is finding success despite going into the tournament at a distinct disadvantage. Whereas many teams involved in the 12-team tournament have been training together for a year or longer, the US squad began training together in March and even then were only able to get eight training sessions and one practice game in before departing for Costa Rica last week.
“For us, it was trial and error from the beginning,” Sanchez said. “I think we’ve turned some heads here. It’s the American spirit. We’re going to work harder than you. We like the underdog role.”
The teams are playing under strict regulations. In each 11v11 match, teams must play six Special Olympics athletes and five Unified Partners at a given time. On the 16-man roster, each player was required to play 60 minutes or more during the group stage, with each match made up of two 30-minute halves.
The US team was selected by Special Olympics Washington vice president of program development Joe Hampson, who hand-selected the best players in the region, including one player from Portland. The partners are all from the Sounders FC Pre-Academy program, so while the selection for the US squad was pulled from a limited region, other teams in the tournament pulled from players around their respective countries.
“I’m very impressed with how well the group has come together. Both sides have done well adjusting to each other’s strengths,” Sanchez said. “You can see where the athletes have improved, just by being around the Pre-Academy players.”
The tournament opened on Friday when the US topped Nicaragua, 2-1. They followed that up with a surprising 2-0 win over Guatemala on Saturday. On Sunday, they nearly pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament when they took a 1-0 lead into halftime against Honduras, but eventually fell 4-1 to finish the group stage ranked fourth among the eight teams to advance.
“Our athletes have measured up well to the opposing team’s athletes and our partners have shown why they are considered the top players in the state of Washington,” Sanchez said.
On Tuesday, they will meet Paraguay in the quarterfinals.
While this tournament is being used as World Cup qualifying for the Central American countries, the US will enter into the North American championships next summer in New Jersey with a trip to Brazil for the Special Olympics Unified World Cup on the line.