Former Cuban international Osvaldo Alonso walked into a new life five years ago.
In a decision that changed his world forever, the Seattle Sounder, who travelled with Cuba to the U.S. ahead of 2007’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, quite literally walked away from his country and family — two things that matter most to one of Major League Soccer’s top holding midfielders, who to this day wishes he could play for “his country” in tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Canada at BMO Field.
“We went to buy stuff for our families,” Alonso said of the day he defected at a Houston-area Walmart, just before the islanders were set to play Honduras in the region’s continental tournament. “I saw the opportunity to walk away, so I did it.”
After starting Cuba’s two prior group matches — a 2-1 loss to Mexico and a 2-2 draw against Panama — Alonso failed to show at Reliant Stadium ahead of Cuba’s final group game.
“My plan was to stay in the U.S.,” Alonso said. “I found somebody in the street. I asked if they spoke Spanish ... I asked to speak on the phone and I called a friend in Miami.”
“They took me to the Greyhounds so I took the bus to Miami,” the 26-year-old recalled.
He signed with the Charleston Battery a year later, where he impressed during his one and only season in South Carolina. The Sounders picked him up in 2009, where he has been a mainstay ever since.
“I wanted to play professional soccer. I wanted to play at a high level. I did it for that,” said Alonso, when asked why he elected to leave his family behind. “If you want to play at the next level, a high level, you have to make the decision. You have the opportunity to play outside the country when you’re with the (Cuban) national team.”
While the Cuban program is somewhat of an anomaly due to the country’s strict control over its players and citizens, Alonso continues to support the nation he remains cap-tied to, and offered up a bit of insight into the day-to-day workings of soccer in the communist nation, the way it approaches player selection and the somewhat tight oversight the team travels with on the occasion it plays internationally away from the island.
“They have a small league in Cuba – 15 teams all over the country,” he said of how Cuba develops talent. “We play and then they announce the roster for the national team. We have a place to train, but it’s not like another country where you can play with your club and then they call you to your national team. It’s different. You have to stay in one place to train and wait for the international game.”
It’s a system that has seen a slew of players defect to the U.S. over the past decade, most recently in March when a player from Cuba’s under-23 team, Yosmel de Armas, left the team before an Olympic qualifier in Nashville.
In 2008, as many as seven under-23 players defected at the same qualifying tournament, a process Alonso described to the Sun.
“They watch you but you always have that moment to make that decision,” he said. “(Team officials) look at you and they try to keep you together all the time. They have some security people fly with the team.
“All the time together,” he reiterated.
Something that makes scouting Cuba a near impossibility. Very few of its players are known outside the island and the team usually performs better away from Havana, where it plays in a crumbling converted baseball stadium.
“I want to play for them, but I’m not allowed anymore,” Alonso said. “We’ll see what happens with (tonight’s) game. I hope (Cuba) walks away with the victory.”
Just like he walked away in the summer of 2007, changing his life for the better and quickly playing his way to the top of North America’s top flight.
“My life has changed 100%,” said Alonso when asked to look back on that decisive day in Houston. “Everything is different … It’s always hard to leave your family, friends and country. It was hard for me, but now I’m very happy.”
Now a U.S. citizen, Alonso doesn’t hold any animosity and he remains optimistic the country will once again open its borders to those who have left.
“I hope someday,” he said, “but now I’m not allowed to go back to Cuba … I wish someday. I’m not sure when.”
Until then, Cuba’s national team, for the most part, will remain a mystery – a side continually entering and exiting competitions without its top players, who leave in search of a better life.
WORLD CUP QUALIFYING NOTES
Canadian head coach Stephen Hart voiced his disappointment with the pitch at BMO Field, highlighting the unevenness of Toronto FC’s home surface. “(The pitch) could be better. It’s a bit bumpy. I know it’s not in the nature to roll fields in Canada, but it needs a bit of rolling.” The grass was two inches too high Thursday afternoon, which isn’t ideal for a side that likes to knock the ball around.
Canadian captain Kevin McKenna said this is likely his final World Cup qualifying cycle, ending a decade-long run of international soccer. “I don’t see me being around for the next World Cup qualifying – that’s for sure,” McKenna said. “I don’t plan on it being over in the next two games.” McKenna has been instrumental in Canada conceding just twice through four third-round qualifiers.
- Panama (9 points)
- Honduras (7 points)
- Canada (7 points)
- Cuba (0 points)
Remaining games for Canada:
- ... vs. Cuba (tonight)
- ... at Honduras (Oct. 16)
Canada will advance with …
- Consecutive wins over Cuba and Honduras.
- Consecutive draws combined with a Honduras loss in Panama.
- A win in Honduras combined with a Honduras loss in Panama.
- A draw in Honduras combined with Canada beating Cuba and a Honduras loss in Panama.
- A loss in Honduras combined with a Honduras loss/tie in Panama and Canada beating Cuba by three or more goals.