PORTLAND, Ore. – When the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC players join together Wednesday evening at Providence Park to play in the PTFC for Peace charity match – a game benefiting UNICEF USA to raise funds for Ukrainian children and families affected by the war (6pm PT, TICKETS, Stream at Timbers.com and ThornsFC.com) – there will be some obvious changes to what would otherwise appear as a “regular” game.
Coed rosters is a big difference, 30 minute halves is another. But one constant that will remain is in the presence of a refereeing crew. Wednesday’s match will have a full compliment of a referee, linespeople and a fourth official. However, for this game’s center referee Sergii Demianchuk, the special event will have an even deeper meaning.
A Professional Referees Organization (PRO) veteran that has been part of a refereeing crew for numerous MLS, NWSL and USL matches, Demianchuk was born in Kremenec, a city located in the western region of Ukraine, and has had a lifelong love and connection with the sport of soccer. He has been provided a chance Wednesday to mix his passion for the game with a deeply personal cause.
Demianchuk grew up constantly around the game – “I'm always saying that I think I was in my mom's stomach and I was already on soccer,” he quips – first going to tournaments to watch his father player in amateur Ukrainian leagues and later himself growing up to play on the field.
“When I was a kid, [my dad] was always taking me with him to tournaments and when I was 16 or 15, he was already even trying to take me play to with him.
“It was all my life.”
Attending university in Ternopil, Demianchuk would continue playing while studying law later serving in the Ukrainian military for two years as a prosecutor at the rank of sergeant.
By 2007, he had met and married his wife, Lilya, and they settled in Lyiv. Hoping to expand their opportunity and life, the couple looked to move to the U.S. While it was not a sure thing, his wife earned a green card with Sergii following close to three years later with the pair settling in Georgia to start a young family with two kids.
For Demianchuk, his love of soccer remained. In 2014, he was licensed as a soccer coach but found his real passion in refereeing.
“To be honest with you, I never thought to become a referee,” he said. “I was always thinking to play professional soccer. I was thinking about to become a coach.
“But we say in Ukraine ‘we make plans but God is laughing on our plans because he already has a plan for us.’ I don't know where it came from…I just decided to take a class to become a certified referee.”
After that class, Demianchuk was hooked. Coaching had kept him on the sidelines when what he really wanted was to be back out on the field. Refereeing gave him the opportunity to combine everything he loved most about the game. So much so, that he can’t even picture himself doing anything else.
“It's the same passion,” he explains. “I still stand on the field. And doing the same game just now I don't touch a ball. We blow the whistle but I’m still in the game and that's what I love, to be part of the game.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this winter, Demianchuk was full of emotion.
“[That] first day, I couldn't believe, to be honest with you, that it was real.”
He immediately got in touch with his father and family and wanted to return to his homeland to help and even fight if necessary. Despite serving in the military, Demianchuk’s training was not on the battlefield – “My background was as a prosecutor. I tried to shoot a gun maybe three times,” he said. His family here and expanded Ukrainian community there encouraged Demianchuk to stay in the U.S., explaining that he could provide a bigger impact from here than in Europe.
He put his efforts into connecting with the Ukrainian diaspora in the states to raise money to send back to family and organizations that could assist in the war effort. That’s why Demianchuk was so honored and excited to combine his love of soccer and pride in his country by serving as referee for PTFC for Peace – the event provides an even bigger opportunity to help those back home.
“You cannot see even on the news what I can when I can talk with my parents and them telling me of all of the kids who lost parents, or of the parents who lost their kids, or of all the families who lost a family member,” he said.
“For me, when I do that [game Wednesday], it's like I'm giving them something from my heart, from a long, long distance. What is making me at least a little bit happy is that I can do something for them to help.”
On Wednesday night, Demianchuk will be at the center of that effort, whistling for fouls, balancing the game between Team Blue and Team Yellow, all while surrounded by a shared community of soccer players and fans united in helping make a bigger impact.
“When we see that help, that support means we’re just getting stronger and [Wednesday’s] event, it's vast. It's not just the event. It's a big opportunity to all our kids. Oftentimes that support may be only one dollar, two dollars. But for that kid, trust me, it's more than that. It’s a big help to support them in the future.”