Ukrainian soccer players find fun - and purpose - in visit to Minnesota

A group of people put their hands together
The girls U14 Ukraine Hope team cheers in Ukrainian before the second half of their game. The team faced off against Lakeville’s U14 Black team at the USA Cup at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Among the thousands of young soccer players in Minnesota for the USA Cup tournament this week are a few dozen Ukrainians — kids on leave from the war at home.

They’re here not to just to play the game, but also to raise awareness of their nation’s ongoing struggle months after Russia launched its latest military action against Ukraine.

"War is not over, we still need help and supplies,” said 13-year-old Solomia Lesnik.

Humanitarian aid worker Jess McAnuff helped assemble a girls' team and escorted them to the tournament at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

A mother hugs her daughter
Solomia Lesnik and her mother, Ellina Lesnik, pose for a photo during the USA Cup tournament at the National Sports Center in Blaine. They plan to return to their home in Kiev, Ukraine at the end of July.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

"We're trying to raise awareness that the war is still going on in Ukraine," she said. The players, McAnuff said, are in the Twin Cities to play soccer but also to say "that they need help and they want to let (people) know that their dads are still in Ukraine, they're still fighting."

While delivering that message, the Ukrainian teens have been experiencing all kinds of new things. For better or worse, 13-year-old Taisiya Bibikova and the other girls have embraced American junk food.

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“In Ukraine, we were eating only salads, vegetables — natural, healthy food," she said. "But now we're eating pizzas, chips.”

The Ukrainians — there's also a boys' team — have become popular among the athletes in the Twin Cities for this week's soccer tournament as they trade temporary team tattoos and commemorative pins.

Some of the girls also struggled with sore feet and blisters, as they worked to find the right fit among donated soccer cleats.

One day earlier this week the girls' team played a squad from Lakeville — with the Minnesota players wearing ribbons in their hair with the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine's flag, to show their support for their guests.

13-year-old Ellie Tjaden's dad is coaching the Ukrainian girls team, which she's also playing on. She said she's heard devastating stories from her new friends.

Hands passing enamel pins
Players exchange decorate enamel pins after their match. The Ukraine Hope team’s pin design featured a blue and yellow sunflower with a soccer ball in the center. Different versions offered either the word “Hope” or “Future” spelled out in Ukrainian. The Ukrainian pins were in such high demand, players said they were getting offers of two or three pins in exchange for their design.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“One of their schools got bombed. And some of their families, like they have to move and they can't be with each other. And it's really sad," she said. "I don't know how a lot of them can still be so happy and smiling, because it's just really sad to hear about.”

Ellina Lesnik is the mother of 13-year-old Ukrainian soccer player Solomia.

“Most of them have been exposed to war and bombing," she said of the Ukrainian teens. "So I think for them to experience something good and positive — it's a wonderful thing.”

And Lesnik said her daughter and the Ukrainian athletes are doing important work by helping to keep Ukraine in the news.

“In the first days of war, in February, in March, everybody was asking so many questions," she said. "Now it's a silence. But every day, every day, people have been killed, even today. Putin is hoping that the world will forget about this war.”

A player kicks a soccer ball
Andrii Ketsuk winds up to pass the ball during a match against the Chicago U16 team at the USA Cup in Blaine on Wednesday. The Ukraine Hope boys U16 team went on to shut out Chicago with final score of 4-0.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

On another field, a team of mostly 16-year-old Ukrainian boys was shutting out a club from Chicago in a match that was much more competitive than cordial.

Sam Tadele plays for a Twin Cities-area team that has welcomed in a few of the Ukrainian boys for the week. He said the language barrier has been challenging — but it's clear the guys from Ukraine know what they’re doing

“They're really good," he said. "Yeah, they have some almost elite passing — it's crazy.”

Most of the boys on the Ukraine team have been playing together for several years and have been riding out the war in neighboring Latvia. Their coach, Rudolf Balazhinec, said it's a gift for his players to be welcomed so warmly in Minnesota.

“This is the healing of their trauma, and they are can dream again about the soccer," he said.

15-year-old Andrii Katsuk came directly from Ukraine to join his refugee team, and couldn’t be happier.

“Here we are like family. We are all together," he said. "It’s great. We’re great.”

Katsuk will soon return to Ukraine. But he and the other young athletes leave with something difficult for average Ukrainian citizens to obtain. Each now has a 10-year U.S. visa — and many hope to return to this country to continue their schooling and begin building their careers.

Additional events in Minnesota

After the USA Cup wraps up on Saturday, Ukrainian soccer players and their coaches have several events planned in Minnesota.

Organizers said they plan to "lead children’s soccer clinics and youth soccer matches, share personal stories of the challenges of fleeing war and living away from home as refugees, and raise funds for humanitarian and medical aid, and personal protective equipment for Ukraine’s citizen-soldiers."

The events — which will also feature Ukrainian dance, music and art — include:

  • Duluth/Hermantown: July 19, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Stebner soccer field complex, 4860 Maple Grove Road

  • Rochester: July 24, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Rochester Community and Technical College, 851 30th Ave. SE

  • Blaine: July 25, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., National Sports Center, 1700 105th Ave. NE