Ukrainian youth soccer team heads home after second place win in USA Cup

A person stands on a stage.
FC Minaj, a youth soccer team from Ukraine, stands on a stage holding a Ukrainian flag at Wooddale Church on Sunday. The team took second at this year's Target USA Cup.
Kyra Miles | MPR News

Over the past week and a half, young athletes from all over the world gathered in the Twin Cities to compete in the largest youth soccer tournament in North America — including a team of young Ukrainians.

FC Minaj finished in second place at this year's tournament, losing in the U17 championship game to North United FC, a team from the north Twin Cities metro.

It was a small disappointment from the 1st place win last year, but the young men said they still had a good time, especially with the support of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie.

Players, coaches and their host families shared their experiences this year and updates on the war in Ukraine at the church on Sunday.

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This is the second year Wooddale Church has called on members to open their homes for the young athletes from across the Atlantic. They’ve partnered with Family of Christ International, a Christian aid organization with the goal to spread Christianity to more places in the world.

Rudolf Balazhinec doubles as the head coach for the soccer team and a member of Family of Christ International. The group works with people in Ukraine to help thousands of Ukrainian civilians and orphans of war through outreach and donations. The word that fuels a lot of his organization's work is hope.

A person stands on a stage.
Rudolf Balazhenic, head coach for FC Minaj and leader of Family of Christ International, shares an update on the war in Ukraine and the progress his organization has made in aiding civilians.
Kyra Miles | MPR News

He said the team’s unlikely journey from a small city in Ukraine to beating some of the best youth squads in the United States was only possible because of the church.

“It’s really inspiring how God communicate[s],” Balazhinec said. “This can be only God.”

Soccer, or football to the rest of the world, is a stress reliever to 16-year-old center back Andrii Ketsuk. He said the USA Cup is a nice break from the war in his home country.

“It mean[s] to me that I can focus to football. I [can] forget about all problems. The problems of the world, that doesn't bother me because I can focus on football. There’s another country and other people,” Andrii said.

He said people's generosity in Minnesota was shocking.

“I didn't expect people to be so wholehearted here because [if I was] in their place, I didn't know if I will host some people who have war in their country,” Andrii said.

Balazhinec shared with church members that Family of Christ International has opened two new churches in Ukraine and encouraged donations and prayers from allies in America.

He also reminded the audience that for Ukrainians, the war started in 2014, not in 2022, and if they achieve a victory there's still a lot of work to do.

“So everybody says ‘Oh, when we win the victory everything's over.’ We invite you to the long marathon. This is a really long marathon,” Balazhinec said.

The team heads back home on Tuesday, but they plan on coming back to compete next year to win 1st place.