You’re Welcome Here

Michael Owens for The Players' Tribune
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OK, I have to start with a small confession.

If you’re reading this you probably know me now as the captain of LAFC, but things could have been very different.

When I left Sporting Kansas City in 2021, I actually had offers from both Los Angeles clubs. 

But I weighed up my options, and spent time with my brother to look at all the pros and cons of both teams and in the end, of course, I made the logical choice … the right choice.

I’m telling you about my choice, because I was reminded of it recently at the official signing day at BMO Stadium for LAFC’s new Special Olympics Unified Team. Alongside Giorgio Chiellini and our GM, John Thorrington, I was there to welcome our new players and their families on this historic day, give them their jerseys, show them the lockers they will share with first-team stars and introduce them to their new home.

We wanted to give every single new team member their first taste of what it feels like to play for this club.

Of course, the day was all about them, not me, but I have to say at the start of the event, I actually felt a little nervous because it brought back feelings of my own signing two years ago. But looking over to the bench at the new roster of players — the first-ever LAFC Special Olympics Unified Team — with huge smiles, full of excitement, they really calmed me.

Michael Owens for The Players' Tribune

Except, there was one new recruit who wasn’t totally convinced.…

I have to keep his name anonymous, but this guy, a little younger than me, came up to me, looking a little unsure about something. We spoke in Spanish.

A mi me gusta LA Galaxy….” he told me.


“Yeah, I’m here to play, but I’m still a Galaxy fan. 


“I really like Riqui Puig.… He’s good. He’s so fast.”

And I was like, “Yeah, Riqui is good but, you know, we have the stronger team. And listen, you are a part of the WE! You are now LAFC!”

I told him my own story of how I could’ve gone to the “dark side” and how when I was making my choice about where to move, I did two things. 

First, I went through the rosters and it was clear that LAFC had the best squad, but secondly I also thought about the fanbase and the wider organization.

There is a responsibility here, a pressure both on and off the field to perform and to behave in a certain way. And I wanted to embrace that.

This club has given me a new level of confidence. Before I came here a lot of people doubted whether I could do it here in this system, at this stage of my career. But LAFC has helped me to get out of my comfort zone and I’ve learned things about myself.

I’m so proud to be here, learning and improving every day. And, of course, to have played a part in winning the first MLS Cup in the club’s history two years ago.

I told this young guy that whether you want it or not, the feeling of this club, it’s gonna grow on you. That’s in our DNA as an organization. 

After that he was like, “You know what … I do prefer the colors, the black and gold. Let’s see how it goes.”


Kiyoshi Mio/USA TODAY Sports

I first got to know about the Special Olympics when I was at Sporting Kansas City and started working with the Victory Project and all the amazing people within those organizations.

In my first year after moving to the U.S. from Europe, I met David Toland, who became a good friend of mine. David is a high school coach in Bonner Springs, Kansas, but also one of the Special Olympics Unified Team coaches for Kansas and Missouri. Because of David, and my friends with the Victory Project, I had the opportunity to help out a bit with the team, coaching a little and sharing the soccer knowledge and experience that I have — little gestures really, but the same things I would try to do with any of my younger teammates.

Over the years, I saw them develop as people and how the Special Olympics program was helping them to grow and achieve their potential. It was also great for me personally because I was new in the country and far from my family, who could only visit once a year.

We developed strong bonds. When I could, I would join their gatherings with them and experience real America. I remember a special birthday party where we had tons of grilled meat, cookies I shouldn’t eat as a pro athlete, and lots and lots of flags everywhere.

Being welcomed into their team made me feel at home.

I got a boost from being around them. Their energy and genuine attitude added something to our club. I know the rest of my teammates felt the same way.

I remember one time on the road, we all traveled to Columbus together — the first team and the Special Olympics team.

There was just a different vibe about that trip.

This was back before charters, so we were all together on the same commercial flight. We stayed in the same fancy hotel, went through all the prep and arrived at the stadium together.

We watched their match from the bench after our own and they loved that feeling of being the center of attention. Both our sides won that day, and you better believe that they didn’t even wait for the flight home for the post-game analysis. As soon as the ref called the game, they were straight over to us: 

“Did you see when…??”

“What about when I…??”

That same Kansas and Missouri Special Olympics Unified Team went on to represent the U.S.A. at the World Cup. They were really good.

In Columbus, they were so excited to play in front of us and their families in that stadium and share in that experience. It puts a big smile on my face whenever I think about it.

Sometimes as professionals, after a while, it’s not that you lose passion, but you can start to focus too much on the results week after week and it just becomes your job. 

Having the Special Olympics team alongside us reignited that joy, passion and brightness around this idea of getting to be a professional soccer player.

Courtesy of LAFC

I’ve seen firsthand what an amazing organization the Special Olympics is. These programs give young athletes amazing experiences they would not otherwise have access to and help them develop as young men and women into the best versions of themselves through sport. Being part of the team and playing soccer is all about facing challenges, self-reflection, learning and improving, right?

Since I started my journey here in the U.S. back in 2017, I've made real friends and seen many of them grow from kids into adults, ready to choose their path in life. I will always try to be there for them and give any support I can. 

But it’s also clear that we all have a responsibility to do more to fight for equity for all and make the difficulties they face more visible. 

That doesn't mean that they are different, or that they are somehow less or more than anyone else. Not at all. We are all human beings just the same. It’s just that they still need some help in certain areas to enjoy their lives with the same freedoms as everyone else. 

I'm still learning about the ways in which I personally can, as we say in Spanish, echar una mano (give a hand) to my new teammates and to the wider Special Olympics program. But as soon as I learned that LAFC was putting a team together for the new season, I knew I wanted to be involved as much as I could. 

This cause deserves attention, time, energy and also dollars. That’s why I’m so grateful to receive the support from Audi and its Goals Drive Progress fund. There is a lot more still to do, but the timing is right for us at LAFC to grow as an organization, adding to our structure with projects like the Special Olympics Unified Team.

LAFC is still a new organization. We are only in our seventh season in MLS now. We are still very young. We are developing our identity. The more we can add to our organization, the stronger it makes us as a team. Simple as that. 

I have to finish by telling you a quick story about my first game here as an LAFC player at BMO Stadium back in 2022.

It was always tough to come here as an away player, believe me, because you can feel the crowd, all 20,000 people, really pushing the team. But the thing I noticed first when I arrived as a home player was the flags.

I remember after the game, I was going through the match photos of my debut with my mom.

After talking a bit about the match, we discussed the atmosphere, the fans, and everything else around the game.

So after the game, we were going through these photos looking at the crowd and were taken in by all these flags. We were trying to identify them and work out what they all meant. There were so many different countries and communities represented including Korean, Latino, LGBTQ+, and so many more, all united in support of the club. My mom even wanted to bring over a Catalan flag to the next game haha!

Michael Owens for The Players' Tribune

Seeing all those flags made me understand just how inclusive this club is. 

It really doesn’t matter where you come from, how you look, what you do, your religion, politics, nothing. As long as you like soccer? As long as you are in Los Angeles? This team is a safe space. 

You’re welcome here.

We are all a part of the same club and community. The best one in Los Angeles, in my unbiased opinion. 

I think my skeptical friend from the Unified Team would now agree. 

Our goal at LAFC is simple: to win trophies, make beautiful memories and invite everyone to join the bright side.

The Audi Goals Drive Progress initiative supports MLS athletes making an impact off the pitch through financial contributions to nonprofit organizations that create sustainable communities, foster equity and inclusion, and enrich the lives of those in need. Through the Audi Goals Drive Progress fund, Audi will be providing $40,000 to Special Olympics SoCal in celebration of the work that both the organization and Ilie do for their community. For more stories on Audi’s commitment to supporting MLS athletes and their community initiatives, please check out additional content from the “Celebrating Impact” series.