It’s been a long and rewarding journey for Real Salt Lake Unified soccer head coach Jenna Holland, but the last three years have added another level to the joy she gets in working with the Special Olympics program. The accolades keep coming too, as the third-year coach for RSL Unified has been named head coach of the Western Conference Unified Special Olympics Team at the 2018 MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta. The Unified Special Olympics All-Star game will be played July 31 at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in the build-up to the 2018 MLS All-Star Game on August 1 when the best of MLS will take on Italian champions Juventus.
“It’s been amazing,” Holland said. “The support that Real Salt Lake and the RSL Foundation give us is incredible. Watching the athletes improve and grow and work together with their partners is so rewarding. Now to have the support of RSL and Major League Soccer and to get the full MLS experience at the All-Star Game … I can’t describe it.”
Holland has worked with people with disabilities since starting her career in 1998 at Futures Through Choices, a not-for-profit agency providing programs and services for low-income and/or disadvantaged individuals with a focus on the developmentally disabled within Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Box Elder and Cache Counties. From there, she started involving her passion for soccer when she founded the Northern Thunder Special Olympics Utah delegation in 2000. A former collegiate player at McPherson College and Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), it was the perfect marriage.
In addition to her work with the Northern Thunder, she was also named head coach of the Utah Unified soccer team for the USA Games in New Jersey in 2014. It was with that experience that she was brought in as head coach of the RSL Unified team in 2016, when she was named the Unified Coach of the Year.
“It’s a huge opportunity to be involved in this family and have this type of experience,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing to see the expressions on their face when they walk into the locker room and see a jersey with their name on it. … It brings a tear to your eye when you see how much it means to them.”
Holland is in her third season with Real Salt Lake Unified, having coached in wins over the Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In preparation for their matches, the athletes train at America First Field and now the Zions Bank Training Center, utilizing the same field used by their heroes with Real Salt Lake, the Real Monarchs and Utah Royals FC.
“I never thought it would grow to what it is,” Holland beamed. “Everybody I’ve met and worked with has been amazing. The athletes and partners get to meet their favorite players. We are just so excited to be a part of the whole experience.”
This year, RSL Unified will meet the Colorado Rapids delegation on August 25 in Colorado before hosting the LA Galaxy on September 1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The RSL Unified Team participates in the MLS Unified Exchange program. This program provides opportunities for the RSL Unified team to participate in a 1st Team MLS experience. Unified soccer teams, comprised of players with and without intellectual disabilities, travel from their home city to other MLS markets to compete in exhibition matches with their Special Olympic counterparts. Unified matches are scheduled in conjunction with MLS club matches, providing MLS fans with an opportunity to witness first-hand the talents and abilities of Special Olympics athletes and unified partners.
For more information about the MLS program click here.