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Maryland School for the Blind graduate Jefferson Palacios working to make USA Blind Soccer National Team

In the first week of June, Jefferson Palacios signed up for a “Mortal Kombat” video game tournament for the July 8-10 weekend.

Then the 2021 Maryland School for the Blind graduate was invited by the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) to try out on the same weekend for a chance to join the first Blind Soccer National Team. And the decision was simple.

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“It’s one of those things where, yeah, I wish [I could have played] because I know I would get pretty far in the tournament, but at the same time, the biggest thing is my dream of representing the country,” he said. “That’s more important.”

So recently, Palacios, now majoring in recording arts at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, joined 11 other players from around the country at what was described as an “identification camp” in Rock Hill, South Carolina, organized by the USABA in conjunction with the Charlotte Independence Soccer Club. Over the span of three days, the 12 players worked on drills, participated in scrimmages and showed off their skills before three coaches in hopes of being named in October to the national team that is scheduled to make its international debut in December at the International Blind Sports Federation’s Central American Championships in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

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Philip “Fil” Wilkinson, one of those three coaches and the director of community engagement for the Charlotte Independence, said Palacios made a favorable impression with him and his colleagues.

“He would be — at this moment in time — be very close to making the team, in my opinion,” Wilkinson said. “He obviously needs a little bit of work, but from the two camps that I’ve attended, he is definitely up there as a strong candidate for one of those 10 spots. He’s very close.”

Palacios’ performance did not surprise Maryland School for the Blind soccer coach Timothy Taylor, who said he has been encouraging Palacios to try out for the national team.

“I’ve been telling him, ‘This is an opportunity for you, you’re a very skilled athlete, and this is something that you should pursue,’” Taylor said. “So I definitely pushed him, but as a young adult, he’s got to make his own choices. But I’m very happy that he is doing this, and I am very pleased to hear that he is doing his best to try to make the team.”

Palacios’ opportunity is within his grasp despite eyesight problems that began at birth. He said he was born a few days premature with total blindness in his left eye.

Because of the premature nature of his birth, Palacios said he was placed in an incubator where prolonged exposure to oxygen and intense lights damaged his right eye.

Palacios said operations when he was 2 and 4 years old to counteract the damage done to his right eye proved ineffective. He said his vision began degrading when he was 6 to the point where he can only currently make out lights and shadows.

But Palacios was undeterred from trying to live his life as he wished. He began playing soccer with friends from the Baltimore neighborhood he grew up in and attended Lakeland Elementary School in Baltimore until the sixth grade.

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“It was one of those things where you adapt and try to make things work,” he said.

When he graduated from elementary school, Palacios transferred to the Maryland School for the Blind in 2015. He said the transition “was pretty hard,” especially learning Braille, which he had not learned.

Sports proved to be an outlet. Palacios swam the 50- and 100-meter freestyle in and ran the 75, 200 and mile in track. But soccer is where he really stood out.

Taylor said the soccer program at the Maryland School for the Blind began as a club team in 2017 with Palacios among the five players. The following year, the program was elevated to varsity status with 10 players. Palacios played a starring role.

“Having a little bit of a soccer background from home, he picked it up right away and became a leader from the start,” Taylor said. “He went from a novice leading the team to a graduate leading the team and scoring goals.”

Blind soccer differs greatly from the game known by the general public. In blind soccer, matches feature teams playing five-on-five with four field players wearing eye shades and one sighted goalkeeper who can direct his teammates.

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The ball is weighted with ball bearings that produce a jingling sound. Players are required to say, ‘Voy’ to alert players of their positions, and the ball can be played off sideboards that run along the sidelines.

Palacios said communication is “everything.”

“Everything is trusting your teammates and doing your part,” he said.

At the national team camp, Palacios admitted that he lacked that cohesion with his teammates. He said he tended to get too aggressive pursuing the ball and taking himself out of position.

A forward for much of his career at the Maryland School for the Blind, Palacios asked the national team coaches if he could switch to center back in his squad’s diamond formation, which fit his skills, according to Wilkinson.

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“From his ability, he could pretty much play all the positions on the field,” he said. “But he was coming to the ball a little too much and not holding his shape and organization of the team’s formation and structure that we were implementing. He and I chatted a few times, and he asked me to try him more as a center back, and that allowed our goalkeeper to give him more instruction, and that gave him more information as to when he could approach the ball and what he needed to do when he had the ball.”

As of now, there are no more camps on the schedule before the October announcement of the national team’s roster. Palacios said he is working to fine-tune his ability to control the ball.

“I have to work and prove that I can make it,” he said. “We will know who makes it in October. So I can’t wait for that.”

Wilkinson said Palacios’ footwork with the ball could be enough to get him a spot on the national team.

“Tactical ability and guidance is something that we can work on, but he already has good technical ability with the ball at his feet,” he said. “He does well there, and that is huge. The tactical stuff comes down to the coaches’ and team’s ideas on how to play the game, and he is easy to coach. He started to pick up and understand those changes.”

Taylor, the Maryland School for the Blind coach, said it would be an honor for Palacios and the school if Palacios was named to the national team. That, Palacios said, is the ultimate objective.

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“I want to represent the USA,” he said. “Ever since it started, I’ve wanted to be a part of this program. I even dropped swimming for it. It’s one of those things where you really push yourself to learn and work to represent your country.”


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