HARRISON — Out on the field at Red Bull Arena, Nicholas Vales was all smiles. He adjusted the thick, black bandanna around his close-cropped hair, waiting for his chance to play for Special Olympics New Jersey’s Unified soccer team. In the stands, his father, Anthony Vales, was “nervous that he enjoys it.”
Out on the field, the Red Bulls-affiliated team showed no such strain en route to a 3-1 victory against Orlando City SC — Eustis (Fla.) High School’s Unified team — on Saturday afternoon, before the Major League Soccer teams met. Vales beamed as he bowed his head to receive a medal, which he said he’d “add to my many medals from all the sports I do.”
“It was intense,” said Vales, a 22-year-old from Oceanport who is part of the KACH at Brookdale program through ARC of Monmouth County.
“Everyone was all over the place.”
It is the fourth year of the Unified Exchange program, which promotes social inclusion through sports. Cheyenne Miller of Piscataway and Gerson Hernandez had both been part of the Red Bulls Unified team last year.
The players “signed contracts” with sporting director Denis Hamlett at the Red Bulls’ training facility in Hanover Twp. Wednesday, then warmed up with the MLS team. They have been practicing together since late June, traveling to Union City, Princeton and the Red Bulls’ United Soccer League affiliate at Montclair State.
Special Olympics New Jersey will visit FC Dallas on Sept. 2, the same day the Red Bulls’ first team plays there.
“What I’ll give up on, they don’t,” said Ashanta Blackmon of Piscataway, whose son, Willie, participated in Special Olympics track and bowling with Miller.
“They go far beyond any labels or hindrance anyone puts on them. She’s a great competitor.”