Three Homewood-Flossmoor High School soccer players are competing on MLS-sponsored teams hosted by Special Olympics.
Chicago’s professional soccer team, Chicago Fire, has joined with Special Olympics Illinois in hosting a Chicago Fire Unified team giving five special athletes and their six partners a chance to compete on Major League Soccer (MLS) fields across the country. The partnership has been going on the past dozen years, according to Jen Kelso of Special Olympics Illinois.
Unified team members are selected through try-outs. Nolan McNellis, a 2023 H-F graduate, won a spot on the team in 2022. He tried out at the suggestion of H-F special education teacher and unified soccer coach Katie Rice. McNellis said it was such a great experience that he tried out for the Chicago Fire Unified team this year, along with Xavier White, an H-F senior, and both were accepted as partners, along with unified team athlete Sam Zinaich, a part of H-F’s VAST Program serving special needs adults to age 22.
H-F is the only school to have three people represented on the unified team.
David Dore, director of special education at H-F, is a team coach for this team and every team since the program was organized.
McNellis, White and Zinaich have been part of H-F’s unified soccer team the past several years and were on H-F’s team that won the Special Olympics state championship title in 2022.
Special Olympics Illinois presented H-F with special recognition as a National Unified Champion School in fall 2022. It was the second time in four years the program has won the honor.
This year, Chicago Fire United has played twice at Soldier Field, and traveled to Nashville to play Nashville SC Unified for a game at Geodis Park, and New England Revolution Unified for a game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Chicago Fire Unified will play a game in Madison, Wisconsin, against a lower division MLS team on July 29, and on Aug. 26 they will play LA Galaxy Unified at the Galaxy’s home stadium on the campus of California State University.
The team’s travel and accommodations are arranged by Chicago Fire and Special Olympics Illinois. The team arrives at their destination a day before the match giving them time to meet their opposing team members. White said these bonding sessions have been fun and bring all the participants together in noncompetitive activities. They’ve enjoyed games at a Top Golf facility and had fun at a Dave & Buster’s amusements.
When the Chicago Fire hosted, the Chicago unified team and the opposing team enjoyed a boat ride out into Lake Michigan followed by a deep dish pizza party, Kelso said.
Zinaich said being on the Chicago Fire Unified team “requires a lot of focus and practice. It also comes with a little pain when heading the ball or receiving the ball with the chest, thigh, and foot. Soccer can be a tough sport especially when playing a game because it requires so much focus and practice but when you really put your heart and head into the practice or game you are playing it’s really worth it in the end. Especially when it comes down to scoring a goal.”
Zinaich credits his dad, Sam, with helping him learn the game and coaching him at home.
“I absolutely love soccer. I look up to my favorite Chicago Fire player Kei Kimura,” Zinaich said.
At the start of this season, Chicago Fire Unified lost the first game, but has found its groove and has won the last three competitions. The second game at home Chicago Fire won 4-2 with McNellis leading the way with three goals and an assist.
“It’s really funny because I played soccer my whole life but I’ve never been much of a goal scorer,” McNellis said. “Going out on the field they told me you’re going to play forward. I was a little nervous at first, but the second the ball hit the back of the net, I forgot everything. The feeling is so electric, the best feeling ever.”
McNellis will be attending Indiana University at Bloomington starting in August, but he plans to continue his involvement in unified sports.
“I plan on doing this until they say they don’t want you any more,” he said.