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Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals building on storied history with return to national stage

The Ukes kicked off their inaugural season in the National Premier Soccer League last week

Matt Ralph

History and pride go hand in hand with the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals and since kicking off their inaugural season in the National Premier Soccer League, there’s been a heavy weight of both.

Founded in 1950 by displaced Ukrainians as a way to preserve their culture and heritage after World War II, the club found success early on with a National Amateur Cup trophy in 1956 and a string of U.S. Open Cup championships (four) and league titles in the American Soccer League (six) from 1959-1970. The modern era of the club has seen much of their success come at the youth level as they’ve grown from having a small program for Ukrainian kids to a full slate of youth teams open to all competing nationally.

Their entry into the NPSL has served as a return in part to their roots as a team competing on a national level while supplying a stronger tie between their youth and adult programs during the intervening college and early post-college years.

“We wanted to bridge that gap between our youth and our adult team, and basically build a U23 team,” said Steve Krysko, assistant executive director in an interview earlier this year. “This NPSL opportunity came to us, and it fits right into that model.”

Players lined up pre-game at the Philadelphia Ukrainians inaugural NPSL game on May 18, 2022
Matt Ralph

Eugene Luciw, a team historian, has fond memories growing up around the club and the legacy that impressive string of trophies in the ‘60s represents. Only the Bethlehem Steel and Maccabee Los Angeles – both with five – have more U.S. Open Cup (previously known as the National Challenge Cup) than the Ukes, who are tied with five other teams with five.

“I was a very little boy barely understanding that these Ukrainian Nationals were winning all these championships,” Luciw said. “But there’s a certain hunger that develops from that heritage.”

Luciw’s own Ukrainian background plays heavily into his lifelong dedication to the club and the larger story of what it means to be Ukrainian, particularly when the country has been under siege by neighboring Russia since they launched a brutally unjust war in February.

“Sport is an integral part of national identity, which from a Ukrainian perspective is very important because the bad guys, the empires always wanted to crush our national identity, which is what they want to do again,” Luciw said.

The current war in Ukraine has brought a new awareness of the club’s heritage and history. Though many of the players and coaches are not Ukrainian in heritage the significance of what the club represents is not lost when players step on the field wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag or when their club name appears on a schedule. At their inaugural NPSL game on May 18, the ball kids wore shirts emblazoned with the Ukrainian coat of arms and the Ukrainian national anthem was sung prior to the U.S national anthem before kickoff.

“It’s a source of national pride,” Luciw said. “The story of this club is known in Ukraine.”

The Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals’ clubhouse is in view during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before the club’s inaugural NPSL match on May 18, 2022
Matt Ralph

The Ukes’ inaugural NPSL roster is a solid mix of players primarily in the 18-23 age range. Some standout names include two former Pennsylvania high school state players of the year – Carter Houlihan and Ben Liscum – and University of Louisville defender Josh Jones. American University midfielder Nevin Baer scored the first goal in a 2-0 win over Jackson Lions in the first game. More than 100 people were in the stands, giving the new team – sporting brand new Capelli jerseys – a well-deserved buzz to kick off the new era.

“I couldn’t be happier with how everything went,” said Dan Harmon, the club’s director of development and co-head coach along with Mike Gorni. “We were really happy to see the turnout, to get a win and to see the support for Ukraine with everything that’s going on right now.”

Gorni, who needs no introduction as a coach who has won multiple national titles with Lehigh Valley United, was an early sign of the club’s intentions to compete when he was named in the announcement of the team joining the NPSL in January.

Co-head coach Mike Gorni coaching during the Ukes’ inaugural NPSL match on May 18, 2022
Matt Ralph

“For our club to just have the respect that comes along with Mike Gorni’s name be associated with our club and then vice versa for him to respect our club enough to say, ‘yeah, I’d love to coach there’ was an honor for us,” Harmon said. “It’s really big for us to have Mike on board.”

The Ukrainian Nationals hosted the Jackson Lions and Pennsylvania Classics – both fellow expansion sides – in their first two games at the Ukrainian American Sports Center in suburban Philadelphia. Both ended in 2-0 wins for the hosts.

Matt Ralph

Not far from the field they play on in the complex is a clubhouse with an entire wall of shelves behind the bar filled with trophies. Additional artifacts adorning the walls tell the storied history of the club. It’s a history club leadership is hopeful will help move them into a new era of success.

“One of our major goals is getting back into the Open Cup,” Daniel Nysch, director of community development, said. “It will only benefit our club down the road and bring life back into that history.”

To get one of the coveted Open Cup berths through NPSL, they’ll have to navigate the always competitive Keystone Conference, which also features their frequent United Soccer League of Pennsylvania rival West Chester United, Philadelphia Lone Star and North Jersey powerhouse FC Motown among others. The Ukrainians’ adult reserve team just recently won the Majors II division of the USLPA and their U17 team was crowned the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer President Cup champions over the weekend.

“We always like to say when you face us you’re going to get a good game,” Harmon said. “We’re going to play a certain brand of soccer that’s as tough and as technical as we need to be.”