The Secret World of Military Soccer: Ryan Praleikas of Minot AFB SC

The Secret World of Military Soccer: Ryan Praleikas of Minot AFB SC

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And now, you are going to learn about a soccer team on the American fringe. Seriously. Minot is an hour from Canada. Ryan Praleikas recently took the time to sit down and interview with me about his efforts to bring soccer to our portion of the Great White North. Check it out.

Welcome to AP, Ryan. Let’s start off simple for the readers. Who you are, where you’re from, and what your role is with Minot AFB SC.
My name is Ryan Praleikas, and I’m the “coach” and goalkeeper for the Minot AFB soccer team, I’m originally from Naugatuck, CT. I went to college at Western New England in Springfield, MA. Since then I’ve lived in Australia, England, and now North Dakota!

That is a lot of moving. Might I ask what took you to all these places, and how did you wind up in Minot?
Well our entire team is in the Air Force. Active duty, dependents, or guard. I’m currently a medic in the Air Force. Our team came together to train for an annual all military tournament down in San Antonio in September that consists over 40+ teams from bases all over the country and world. As for Australia I went there to study abroad in college and ended up playing with some local clubs and enjoyed it so I stayed a while. I was stationed in England at RAF Lakenheath and was lucky enough to play for some clubs over there as well. I’ve been in Minot for three years now and I’m scheduled to stay for 2 more.

I got in touch with the APL and Tim over at FC Fargo because while the youth football here in Minot is massive the adult level is kind of sporadic despite the absolute melting pot of people that the oil boom created

I was in Minot a few years ago, and the stories of growth, and growing pains, were pretty wild. What kind of work went into starting this team, and keeping it together, after the tournament?
Yeah quite the boom; the difficulty around this team is usually in dealing with the turnaround and schedules. Military members are constantly coming and going and then we have to replace them and get new kits etc. scheduling is a whole other beast many players are on 24 hour ops for multiple days in a row out at sites spread across the state. My goal is to expand the military team into a Minot FC and incorporate civilians into the team as well hopefully in time to join the APL in the next year or two.

The winter doesn’t help either considering we are forced indoors October to May minimum

Yeah, the weather out there is more than a little chilly. I like that idea of spinning it into the civilian side of things to help reduce those challenges of scheduling and player replacement. What kind of talent level do you seem to get right now? Lots of fans turned players or guys who have played before?
Our talent level on any given year is mixed from high school up to former professionals. This year were lucky enough to have a solid group. Mostly former college players anywhere from D1 to D3, with a few players who only played high school. We have players from over 12 different states and 1 from England. Our background diversity really creates an interesting aspect in the team and along with that the discipline associated with being in the military helps prevent any real clashes that could come with being from so many backgrounds

I hadn’t thought about that. Military discipline creating cohesion. Makes sense though. What about talent outside of the Air Force base? Or is that nothing something you’ve really been able to gauge yet?
It’s raw. There is a lot of people from the Caribbean in Minot that will come out and play pick up matches and what not. Some incredible talent, just too often lack organization or dependability. The youth program here is wonderful and goes all the way up to the u-18 level. Producing some of the best teams in the region actually. That’s where it stops though there isn’t much for college men’s soccer in North Dakota and too often these talented high school players fade and never pursue the sport at higher levels. That’s another reason for building this program, I want these young players to see what the majority of the rest of the country sees and that’s the growth of soccer. It is something you can play beyond youth and high school. A Minot based “semi-professional” team would help mold that raw talent and thus hopefully encourage the growth of the sport in North Dakota.

Sorry went on a bit of a tangent there.

No big deal, that’s what my interviews are for. Tangents and soap boxes. Now what can you tell me about the American Premier League? What has you interested in them over the amateur leagues, like the National Premier Soccer League or Premier League of America?
Proximity to be honest. I came across them via FC Fargo. I was looking for teams for ours to scrimmage in preparation for our military tournament and Tim Singleton the CEO of FC Fargo and I got to talking and he happens to be the secretary of the APL as well. He was very receptive and willing to help and they’re a new league who is really growing and I like what they’re doing. They’re only in Minnesota and eastern North Dakota at the moment but they’ve been wanting to stretch out to the western half where Minot and Bismarck are located. I also really like the idea of being apart of something new and exciting with so much potential

Interesting, Tim was my first interview, and FC Fargo is how I heard about your team. Is the APL focusing on being more of a regional league or I am way off base?
Too be honest I can’t speak on their behalf mostly because I have no idea. I know they had a rough few years and are focused on stability and prosperous growth but that would be a better question for Tim.

I understand, the APL is on my list of leagues to interview down the road. Now, if you wouldn’t mind enlightening my readers, how would you describe Minot, and really, North Dakota in general, to an outsider?
Oh wow that’s a loaded question. It’s an interesting place. I grew up in south west Connecticut, pretty much right outside of New York City. Very crowded, lots of people, and most people kind of kept to themselves. That’s the kind of life I’m used to and usually prefer.

North Dakota I suppose is the exact opposite, the people are very friendly although I get a chuckle every time someone living in Minot tells me that they moved here to “the big city” for opportunity and mind you, Minot is a place of only 50k-60k people. The winters are harsh and windy with temperatures easily reaching -60 and the summers are hot and balmy. Very flat not a lot of trees. Let’s just say I’ve been all over the world and yet have never been anywhere quite like here.

The cost of living fluctuations based on oil, the complete mix of people here to find work, with the people from the base, and the locals is truly a clash of a laid back country town that had the modern world kind of thrust upon it. You truly have to experience it to even begin to understand it.

I remember when my brother in law was stationed out there, he said unemployment was negative 2%. That number blows my mind to this day. Beyond being a team on what could you call the ‘final frontier’ of soccer in the US, you’ll only be in Minot for another two years yourself. That makes this into a two pronged question.Where do you want to see the team in two years, when you leave, and where do you hope the team is without you in five years?
You know you’re not the first person to ask that actually. By the time I leave in May ’18 I’d like the team to be established and hopefully preparing to compete in their first or second year of the APL. A solid fan base that sees fans attending home matches on a regular basis would also be wonderful.

In five years ideally the league itself will have grown and Minot will be at the forefront of that, competing for trophies, with a solid number of fans attending home and away matches, and a symbol of the town itself hopefully on par with the local hockey team the Minot Minotauros if not more popular. If this team is still going strong in five years I will consider it a massive victory for the sport in western North Dakota and after that the sky is the limit truly. Just the thought of it actually already makes me quite proud. Until then though I hope everyone has fun!

That’s a pretty solid vision. You had mentioned earlier a military soccer tournament in San Antonio. What can you tell me about that? How it’s structured, who shows up, that kind of thing.
The Defenders Cup is every year for at least the last 15-20 years. Usually happens over Labor Day weekend in San Antonio at the STAR Soccer Complex. It’s open to any military instillation. To play you have to have a Department of Defense ID, last year there were 40 teams from as far away as Hawaii. I believe something like 15 teams had to be turned away even. Last year was the first year Minot participated and we finished 13th.

There is a 4 team group stage and from those results you are ranked for the knockout portion. It’s a grueling tournament to be honest because it takes place over 3 1/2 days and the temperature is usually around the 100 mark. This is usually used as scouting grounds for the All-Armed Forces teams where the 18 best players from the Air Force create one team to face a team from Army, a team from Navy, and a team from the Marines. It goes even further because every four years a best 18 is chosen from that tournament to participate in CISM, which is basically the military world Olympics. Facing the military teams of other nations. It’s a massive event.

I was lucky enough to play for the all Air Force team last year and was invited to play for the USA team in CISM. But my work couldn’t release me to South Korea for a month to compete. It was gut wrenching to be honest. I always dreamed of representing the United States on the pitch.

Wow. I never knew the armed forces had such a program in place. Not just for the sport in general but for finding talent. I mean, that’s more comprehensive scouting then either MLS or the USSF do to find talented players. Different circumstances, yes, but far more thorough. Who won the last go round of CISM?
Oh man, I believe it was Qatar or South Korea. And that’s an interesting dynamic because a lot of those countries have mandatory service so they’re putting in actual professional players and the USA team often only has three weeks to play with one another. So we struggled. On the bright side we won the North American battle and beat Canada 3-2!

Alright, down with Canada! That would be very difficult, having to play pro teams of military guys. I could see South Korea being really good at that. Ready for some more rapid fire questions to wrap things up?
Hit me with em.

What’s your favorite team and or league to watch?
Liverpool hands down, I have you’ll never walk alone tattooed on my back.

Awesome. Who are your favorite soccer players, one past, one present?
Past: King Kenny. Present: my heart says Stevie G, but as a goalie I’d also say Neuer.

Gosh, Neuer is a man-beast, he’s not a goalie. Do you have a favorite soccer or podcast?
You know I haven’t really gotten into podcast although I wish I have. I follow Alexi on Twitter and I respect his don’t give a sh*t attitude

His podcast is pretty good. Where can people find out more about yourself and the team?
Well people can absolutely follow us on Twitter @MinotAFB_SC or follow me on Twitter@WishItWouldRian or Instagram @thefakerianpraleikas

Absolutely more social media for the team as a group is in the works we have way too many characters to not have a Snapchat for instance but for now Twitter will be best

What would you like to say to the people reading this interview about why they should get out and support their local soccer team, regardless of the league level?
It’s easy to support the guys on TV making millions but the true passion is in the men and women who work 40+ hours a week then go out and leave it out on the pitch that’s overgrown and full of rocks and love every second of it. That’s real football and those are the people you should support and also be sure to have a beer with them afterwards!

After all, what would soccer be without beer? Ryan, thanks for taking the time to go do this with me today, I really appreciate it. Good luck with the FC Fargo friendly, and I look forward to seeing what you build in Minot.
I think it would be field hockey. I appreciate you asking for the interview I had a lot of fun! Thank you.

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