Ukrainian youth soccer team returns to USA Cup, starts with win
A youth soccer team from Ukraine is competing in the Target USA Cup in Blaine this weekend. The 15 players of FC Minaj arrived to the United States last Friday for the competition. The trip to the U.S. took more than 30 hours.
“I was full of excitement,” said Andrii Ketsuk, a 16-year-old center back on the team. “I have been playing pickleball and swimming, all the fun stuff […] just enjoying my time in the USA.”
The team stayed with host families when they first arrived. They’re now being housed in dormitories at the University of Northwestern, St Paul.
For 14 players on the team, the trip has also served as a reunion.
“This is a blessing,” said Ketsuk. “We are here for the second time.”
Coach Rudolf Balazhinec first brought the team to this tournament last year with the help of Minneapolis-based outreach organization Source, MN. At the time, some of the athletes had been evacuated from their homes due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The war has now been ongoing for more than 500 days.
“I would say each of the days in Ukraine is a big loss of many people,” said Balazhinec. “We pay a big price for the freedom.”
He has been on the front lines providing humanitarian aid across Ukraine through his organization Family of Christ International. He found his life in jeopardy on a trip just two weeks before leaving for the U.S.
“We made it 16,000 km, 14,000 miles,” he said. “We should die there because a Russian drone caught our mobile signal and they begin working artillery, it was in Kherson.”
He added, “If not God and our soldiers all my team, eight people, would be dead.”
His team has been focusing on getting food, water and medical supplies to people devastated by flooding caused by a dam breach in Southern Ukraine.
“Kherson is 10 times worse than Chernobyl,” described Balazhinec. “Each of you, if you would be in Ukraine, you would know more than you would want to know.”
The trip to the U.S. has been a way to bring attention to the horrors happening at home.
“The war is awful and it has to end and we are asking God to end it every day,” said Ketsuk.
It’s also been a reprieve for these youth players.
They’ve been competing across Ukraine over the last year to prepare for the USA Cup. They hope to bring the championship home.
“I want to win both tournaments,” said 16-year-old team member Nazar Popovych.
FJ Minaj won its first game 5-0 and its second game 3-0 on Friday.