More than 30 years ago, a Dynamo Kyiv youth team played in Italy. They met teams from Rochester, New York. The American parents invited the Ukrainians – at the time, part of the Soviet Union – here for a tournament. Aleksey Korol and his teammates stayed with host families, and enjoyed the USA.
In 1991, the USSR disintegrated. Taking its first steps toward democracy, the nation of Ukraine suffered from violence, corruption and instability. Once again, Rochester extended a welcome.
Korol left his home and family for a new life in America. He was 15 years old.
“It was a tough time,” he recalls. “I spoke no English. I didn’t know much about this country. But I knew I could have a better, more stable life here.”
Ross and Nancy Chirico, and their sons Jordan, Justin and Jerod became Korol’s new, extended family. Treating him “like a son,” they helped him adapt, and provided stability. Three decades later, Korol and the Chiricos remain in close touch.
He was one of nearly a dozen young Ukrainian soccer players with similar stories in Rochester. They played soccer for different high schools, but formed the nucleus of a strong club team. Colleges recruited them heavily. Dema Kovalenko and Yuri Lavrinenko signed with Indiana University. A year later, Korol joined them.
It was a great decision, for him and the school. Korol became the leading point scorer in NCAA postseason tournament history (12 goals, 5 assists for 29 points), and – with 57 goals and 35 assists for 149 points -- the fourth-highest in the Hoosiers’ long soccer history.
He helped IU win back-to-back national championships his junior and senior years, and four straight Big Ten titles. Korol earned All-America honors in 1999, and was named Soccer America’s Player of the Year.
Selected by Dallas as the fifth pick overall in the 2000 MLS SuperDraft, he played professionally with the Burn and Chicago Fire, but was hampered by injuries. After retiring from the United Soccer League in 2004, Korol turned to coaching. He was an assistant at the University of Illinois-Chicago, moved to Indiana for a year, then returned to UIC.
Korol was named associate head coach there in 2016. He has helped the Flames win three Horizon League regular-season titles, and tournament championships in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
After 30-plus years in the United States, Korol considers this country his home. But close relatives still live in Ukraine. He has had to watch from thousands of miles away, as the nation battles bravely against Russian invaders.
Like many, Korol did not think war would actually occur. But since Feb. 24, he has been riveted by the news.
His sister, her 27-year-old twins and their daughters have spent the last three months living in a small house 100 kilometers south of Kyiv. It’s safer there than the city. Yet Korol worries constantly.
“In the beginning I called my sister twice a day,’ he says. “I didn’t want to annoy her, but the bombs kept dropping.”
That was not his only concern. His mother battled leukemia for over 20 years. In February, Korol planned to visit her. His family told him the situation with Russia was too dangerous for him to go. She died five days after the war began.
“It was so hard,” he says. “I couldn’t be there to say goodbye.” Three months later, his grief remains fresh.
UIC players and coaches provided support. “They understood when I wasn’t myself. I usually run the training sessions, but for three days I couldn’t even talk. My mom died, there was war, I didn’t know if my sister would be bombed … things hit me so hard.”
When Korol returned to the team for spring sessions, there were hugs all around.
As American as he now considers himself, Korol retains pride in his homeland. He is particularly proud of the national soccer team, which reached the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup and 2020 European Championship, and co-hosted with Poland the 2012 Euros. He is avidly following their journey to qualify for this year’s World Cup.
He knows that his early days at Dynamo Kyiv – where he entered the residential academy at 13, and whose coaches embraced the Total Soccer philosophy – provided the foundation for all he has accomplished.
“Soccer was a way out for me,” Korol says. “Soccer is my life. Without it, I’d never be in America. I might be in Mariupol. With it, I’m supporting my family here.”
He pauses. “But I still can’t believe in the 21st century, one guy can start a war, and keep it going like this.”