EDGEWATER — Andriy Berezovchuk was leading a training camp in February for Ukrainian soccer team FC Volchansk when he decided to give his players a break.
Fears of a Russian invasion began to spread throughout the country, and particularly in Volchansk, about 2 miles from the border. As head coach, Berezovchuk told his players to go home to their families while the club determined a next move.
A few days later, Volchansk had been invaded by Russian troops.
Berezovchuk and his family fled, having only time to pack three bags for two adults and three children. The family traveled to the capital, Kyiv, before realizing the full scale of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. They continued to move west to the Ukraine-Poland border.
“I saw orange lights,” Berezovchuk said. “I thought the rain had started or something. … When we heard the first bomb, we left and we didn’t stop.
After 18 years as a professional footballer and eight years as a coach in Ukraine, Berezovchuk saw his personal and professional life turned upside down by the invasion. The family has now taken refuge in Chicago, where Berezovchuk is rebuilding his coaching career and has a local team on the verge of a city title.
“I’ve spent my whole life in soccer,” said Berezovchuk, 41. “I can’t do anything else. I want to be in football, and I want to grow and achieve results here.
Berezovchuk is the head coach of Edgewater Castle Football Club, an amateur football team formed in 2017.
The non-profit club has grown over the years, progressing to the Midwest Premier League over the summer. But after disappointing results in the top league, the club have been looking to make changes, chief executive Andrew Swanson has said.
This included a coaching change, but Swanson never expected to land a manager with so much professional experience.
Berezovchuk was attending a youth football event in the suburb of Evanston when he met Sami Ismat, the technical director of Edgewater Castle. Ismat spoke to Berezovchuk about Edgewater Castle and coordinated a meeting between Berezovchuk and Swanson.
Berezovchuk spotted the team and liked what he saw. He signed to coach Edgewater Castle, leading them to the National Football League, which plays in Chicago in the fall.
Berezovchuk is the first staff member or paid player in the club’s history, a fact that underscores his experience and skill, Swanson said. Berezovchuk was also hired as a coach for the Chicago Fire youth program.
“It was very obvious he was extremely skilled,” Swanson said. “At the time, it was a pipe dream to think he would be coaching for Edgewater. We are so lucky that he is willing to put in the time and work.
After seven matches, Edgewater Castle are top of the league standings. With a win on Sunday against AFC Roscoe Village, the club would clinch their first league title in team history.
Players and the general manager attribute much of that success to Berezovchuk, who coached amateur and Ukrainian Premier League sides and major European tournaments.
Success sets Edgewater Castle up for a rebound in the Midwest Premier League this summer, where the club hopes to make waves against professional sides.
“We have guys, once they come out they give it their all,” said Gabriel Masalu, who has played with Edgewater Castle since its inception. “They have respect for the coach and they listen to him. That’s one of the reasons we get wins.
Edgewater Castle takes on AFC Roscoe Village at 4 p.m. Sunday at Maradona Field, 141 W. Diversey Parkway in Lincoln Park.
Chicago’s National Soccer League is a far cry from Berezovchuk’s heights in Ukrainian football.
After turning professional at 16, Berezovchuk retired from his playing career at 34 due to a knee injury. He started coaching, first starting with amateur clubs before moving up the ranks from sporting director of Metalist Kharkiv to head coach of FC Volcanshk.
Berezovchuk has also coached Ukrainian clubs in the Europa League, a European club tournament that sits a step below Europe’s prestigious Champions League tournament.
When Berezovchuk and his family were forced to flee Ukraine, the family decided to come to Chicago. Berezovchuk had visited the United States a few times, including Chicago. He knew someone here, so it seemed as good a destination as any, he said.
The family arrived March 7 and stayed at a hotel before moving in with their friend, Berezovchuk said. He met other Ukrainian refugees who suggested he find cheap accommodation to rent near good schools. The family ended up in the suburb of Buffalo Grove, from where Berezovchuk travels to town to coach football.
“Downtown is closer to my life in Ukraine than Buffalo Grove,” he joked.
Berezovchuk does not know how long his family will stay in the United States. For now, he is signed to coach Edgewater Castle in the Midwest Premier League this spring.
The decision will depend on what happens in Ukraine, where Russia is still engaged in a bloody invasion that has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians. Ukrainian forces made progress in the conflict, including liberating Volchansk, where Berezovchuk was a trainer.
“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow in our country,” he said. “Every day we call our friends who stayed. It’s just awful.
“Everyone hopes we will win.”
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