Famed Ukrainian Nationals soccer team back in spotlight of U.S. Open Cup, Philadelphia Unity Cup
Four-time U.S. Open Cup winners in the 1960s, they remain the last Philadelphia-area team to claim the title. Their clubhouse in North Wales is full of photos, trophies, and memorabilia.
One of the grand old names of Philadelphia soccer is back in the spotlight this month.
The Ukrainian Nationals, who won four U.S. Open Cups in the 1960s, have entered the tournament for the first time since 2015. On Sept. 23, they will play in the first qualifying round for next year's main field.
Also, this coming Sunday, a group of Nationals players will suit up as the Ukraine team in the Philadelphia Unity Cup round of 16. That team will face No. 1 seed Brazil at 1 p.m. at the James Ramp Playground, 3300-40 Solly Ave., near Pennypack Park.
When the club won those Open Cups, it was a professional outfit. These days, it runs amateur teams, with a fleet of youth squads in U.S. Soccer's elite Development Academy. There are also two adult teams. They all play at the Tryzub Ukrainian American Sports Center in North Wales.
Players from the adult teams will form the rosters for the Open Cup and Unity Cup.
"Some of the guys work as roofers. Some are carpenters. Some of them are professionals in other businesses," coach Roman Chupik said. "They all come and we train twice a week here at the club, and get out on Sunday and play our games."
It's the kind of storyline that electrifies England's FA Cup and similar tournaments worldwide: A group of amateurs dreams of a Cinderella run to face a pro team later. It happens in the U.S., too. In last year's Open Cup, Christos FC of Baltimore played D.C. United, and even took an early lead before ultimately falling.
The Ukrainian Nationals name brings added glamour. Echoes of the club's most famous era — one that produced American soccer legends such as Walt Chyzowych and Alex Ely — still resound at the Tryzub clubhouse. The bar and dining room are filled with old photos, trophies and memorabilia, including a championship cup from the American Soccer League of the 1960s.
Their 1966 Open Cup title remains the last won by a Philadelphia-area team. It's a drought that the Union will try to end later this month.
Club president Dan Nysch joked that "the only competition we have for being the most successful professional franchise in Philadelphia is the Athletics — they won a national title five times, and we won it four times."
>> FROM THE ARCHIVES: Learn about the Union's U.S. Open Cup links to the 1966 Ukrainian Nationals
The Nationals' Open Cup game will be against another historic local club, Oakford's United German-Hungarians. They won the 1965 National Amateur Cup and made two Open Cup finals (1977 and 1993). The late Werner Fricker Sr., a former U.S. Soccer Federation president who helped bring the 1994 World Cup to America, was a scion of the organization. His son and grandson, both also named Werner, have held major roles since then.
The game will be played at the Tryzub facility, 1 Lower State Rd., just off County Line Road, at 2:30 p.m. (Unfortunately, that's at the same hour as the Union's home game against Sporting Kansas City.)
Before then, there's the Unity Cup game to look forward to — and Chupik is very much looking forward to it.
"A lot of these guys never played for national teams," he said. "To wear the pride of a national team and play among all these other nations … there is nothing more important to anybody who plays sports, whether professional or amateur."
It's a rematch, too. Brazil beat Ukraine, 4-3, last year. The teams fostered ties from the game that led Brazil's coach to send some youth players he knows — including his son — to the Nationals.
This year's Unity Cup welcomed a record 52 teams, highlighting the region's expanding diversity. The Ukraine team isn't the only one with deep roots in local soccer scene: Past champions Ivory Coast (2016) and Liberia (2017) were run by Lone Star FC of southwest Philadelphia, the same club that produced Union midfielder Derrick Jones.
"I think it speaks to Philadelphia as a whole, as far as our diversity, that no one really knows about," Unity Cup director Bill Salvatore said. "To have such established groups participating, he said, "just lends more credibility to what we're doing."