MLS: Cubans Find Home

Four years ago, Maykel Galindo scurried out of a hotel in Seattle carrying not much more than hope and a piece of paper.

The Cuban national soccer team had just played its second match of the 2005 Concacaf Gold Cup at Qwest Field and was scheduled to leave the next day for its third group match on the other side of the country, at Gillette Stadium near Boston. Since arriving in the United States, Galindo had pondered when and how to seek out a life he knew he could never live in his native country.

"A lot of people ask me about the story," he says, "and I always tell them, 'But you already know the story, you already read about my story,' and they say, 'But it's always good to hear it from you.'"

The story is, since defecting, Galindo has played one and a half USL seasons in Seattle and established himself as a goalscorer in MLS as well as an inspiration to his nation. He topped Chivas USA with 12 goals in 2007 and since then has battled through injuries and surgeries to regain his form and fitness.

"He has been healthy for the last couple of months and has been working and getting in shape," says head coach Preki of lengthy recoveries from sports hernia complications. "Now it's a question of getting the full fitness over the next couple of months. We don't want to put a lot of pressure on him at this moment. We are being very patient and hopefully very soon he will be at the level he needs to be."

Galindo's more than a soccer player who defected. He's a symbol to Cubans in both nations, fulfilling not only his dreams of professional soccer, but freedom as well.

"I've known a lot of Cuban players and I've met a lot of Cuban fans, and they are all new Chivas USA fans," he says. "When they found out I am Cuban and represent Cuba in Major League Soccer, I'm sort of an idol for them. That's the main reason the Cubans want to see me."

For decades, Cuban-born baseball players have found riches and acclaim in Major League Baseball, and every year, thousands of desperate Cubans try to flee their island, often by boat, to reach American shores. Many of them don't make it. Any Cuban defector who can set foot on American soil is permitted to stay, though those intercepted in transit - at sea or by land in Mexico - are sent back. After a year, defectors can apply for residency.

All Galindo had to do was find a safe hiding place, contact the local authorities, and explain his situation. His decision had already been made. Only the execution was left undone. He knew nobody in Seattle, spoke no English, and had only the phone number of the team's local liaison, Alejandro Zahajko, a high school teacher and coach.

That might seem preciously little on which to gamble one's future. For Galindo, that small scrap of paper was every bit as valuable as a passport. He left the hotel, climbed onto the first bus that came by, and upon getting off the bus, went to a pay phone.

Zahajko, who was born in the U.S. to Argentine parents, took Galindo to his home, where he would live for most of the year, and contacted the Sounders, a USL team at the time, to tell them about Galindo. Seattle won the USL title with Galindo on its roster as an amateur player, setting his career as a soccer player in motion. He played one more season with Seattle, drawing interest from several MLS teams.

"Of course, it's something that is unique and I will never forget," says Galindo. "I always talk to Alejandro, he is always following my game. I talk to the kids and when they come here to Los Angeles I take them to the games. I am always going to be grateful to them for what they did and it's something that is great about the United States."

Galindo didn't blaze a soccer trail from Havana to America. During the 2002 Gold Cup, Rey Angel Martinez and Alberto Delgado left their team and eventually signed to play in MLS with Colorado, but neither could hold down a spot.

More defections followed in the wake of his success.

Osvaldo Alonso snuck away from the Cuban team during the Gold Cup in Houston two years ago and has won an MLS job with Seattle this season following a strong performance last year in the USL for Charleston, which reached the U.S. Open Cup final. Another player, Lester More, left the team on another occasion in Houston and played last season for the Battery.

The most spectacular incidents occurred last year during the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. After tying the U.S., 1-1, in Tampa, five players defected, and two more left after its second match. Severely shorthanded, Cuba had barely enough players to field a full team and was eliminated.

Four of those U-23s are playing in the USL pro ranks - Yordany Alvarez is with first-year USL1 club Austin, Yeniel Bermudez succeeded Alonso at Charleston, and Loanny Cartaya and Yendry Diaz are at USL2 Real Maryland.

The most recent case of Cubans defecting took place before last fall's World Cup qualifier in Washington.

Chivas USA and San Jose gave tryouts to one of those defectors, Reinier Alcantara, but didn't offer him a contract. Alcantara and the other defector, Pedro Faife, are playing for Miami in the USL.

Alonso trained last year with Chivas USA, which offered him a developmental contract, but he crossed the country looking for a better situation and after several more trials, eventually landed a good deal in Charleston.

One of the conditions by which Seattle joined MLS was a right to negotiate with all USL players, not just those on the Sounders. Alonso's quickness and confidence on the ball had impressed assistant coach Brian Schmetzer and general manager Adrian Hanauer. They wanted him on their side of the ball if at all possible, and so did head coach Sigi Schmid.

Alonso has stood out with his quick, tidy midfield play. On June 17, Alonso scored his first MLS goal with a spectacular 25-yard blast that squeezed into the upper corner against D.C. United.

"I always talk to Pedro and Reinier," says Galindo. "They are the players I have the most contact with. I also talk to Osvaldo and he is in a new world for him, playing in Seattle, so I am always in touch with him."

Chivas USA and Seattle have played twice this season, but Alonso and Galindo have yet to face each other because of their injuries.

"I have memories from Seattle because I used to be playing there, but of course it will be a good matchup when we play them," says Galindo.  "When Osvaldo Alonso played here the first game, I couldn't play because I was injured, and in the second game when I could play, Osvaldo was injured. So I'm looking towards the Sept. 19 matchup between Chivas USA and Seattle."

Both Alonso and Galindo look forward to one day being on the same field together, and not just as opponents in MLS. By defecting, they suspended their national team careers and though political changes in Cuba are likely to proceed at a snail's pace, they hope to be able someday to visit their native country, and be recalled to their national team.

"This is very good, because the United States is a country that is very close to us," says Galindo of relations between the countries beginning to thaw. "Those of us who have family in Cuba feel that it is important for the countries to have a good relationship.

"I think the news that the relationship is improving, it sounds good on paper, but so far it's been the same in Cuba. It's not like things have been changing and if they change, changes are going to happen very slowly. I am glad I'm able to send money home to my family and they're living better than they used to. That's the only improvement I have seen."

When the USA traveled to Havana last year for a historic match against Cuba in the semifinal round of Concacaf 2010 World Cup qualifying, players like Galindo's Chivas USA teammate, Sacha Kljestan, made the trip, but he and Alonso got no closer than their television sets.

"You feel bad and it hurts to see your national team play without you," says Galindo, who turned 28 in April. "From a soccer player perspective, you want to play for your club team and also your national team, and when I see them on TV it hurts because you know your former teammates."

Galindo says he isn't the best Cuban.

"But I'm really conscious that I came here and opened the doors for Cuban players," he adds. "I know a lot of people have left their families and come here so they could have an opportunity, and I'm glad that I opened the doors for them, too."

Defections by Cuban athletes cross many boundaries. Like Americans who evade the travel ban to Cuba by transiting through a third country, Canada is an attractive alternative. The first Cuban national team player of note to defect was Eduardo Sebrango, who defected to Canada from Cuba in 1998 and has had a long career in the USL.

Homesickness plagues both Galindo and Alonso, yet they are thankful their teams have embraced them not as novelties, but as individuals.

Though he scored just one goal and played but 10 games in 2008, Galindo feels he is part of a very close-knit group. With his real family in Cuba, he reaches out to those who have welcomed him into theirs.

"Every day when you wake up and you know you cannot play, it is like having your dreams smashed," says Galindo. "It was very frustrating to have in one year three surgeries, but right now I'm going through another phase.

"At my birthday party [in January], the whole team attended the party, and the best gift I got that day was that the whole team attended. I'm very happy when I look back at what I've done during my soccer career here in the United States. It is something that I always dreamed of and I will always be a son to the family who picked me up when I got here to the U.S."

(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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