Sounders FC

Sounder goes from Cuba to Seattle . . . through Wal-Mart

TUKWILA – In times gone by, immigrants would trundle their hopes for a new life through Ellis Island, past the inspiringly up-raised beacon of the Statue of Liberty.

For Osvaldo Alonso, the portal to freedom and the American dream was perhaps a little less romantic, but nonetheless symbolic of the 21st century: The native Cuban defected at a Wal-Mart in Houston.

Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor … and we’ll roll back prices on liberty, freedom and a shot at playing professional soccer.

Now, Alonso is a talented midfielder for the Seattle Sounders FC. He plays with a fluid grace and competence at a position that stresses versatility and a blend of offensive and defensive skills.

Although he’s just 23, his story involves politics, intrigue, athletics and a dash of romance.

The rise to professional ranks demands sacrifice for any young athlete. For most, it’s a matter of endless hours of training and learning their craft.

For Alonso, it was far more; it meant leaving his family and everything he’d known.

Since Alonso’s English and my Spanish left us little common ground beyond “Hola,” the interview was translated by Sounders defender Taylor Graham, a California native and Stanford grad who is fluent in Spanish and French.

In the “warm-up” questions, Alonso reported that he is happy to have the opportunity to play in Seattle, he likes the city and the supportive fans, but he’s still adapting to the climate.

He grew up in San Cristobal, Cuba, roughly 60 miles southwest of Havana. His father is a youth soccer coach who started schooling Alonso at age 5. With that foundation, Alonso played for Cuban national teams 17 times, and captained the national U-23 team.

But as he prepared for the team’s trip to the U.S. in the summer of 2007, Alonso made the decision to defect. He told no one.

“There really wasn’t an opportunity to become a professional soccer player (in Cuba),” he said. “I wanted to do everything in my power to take that step.”

But Wal-Mart?

“It was such a big store; people were looking at so many things,” he said. “It seemed the best opportunity to get out.”

Through Graham, Alonso explained the intensity of the moment.

“There was a lot of nervous energy. I was thinking about my family and whether (the get-away) would be successful, so I needed to just do it quickly.”

While teammates sorted through reasonably priced fashions and personal electronics, Alonso’s heart was pounding through his shirt.

When everyone else was occupied, he strolled out the front door. That was the extent of his plan. He had no contingencies in place. He eventually contacted a friend in Miami and soon hopped a bus in that direction.

In an interview with the Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, S.C., last year, Alonso told of a curious development during the American tour. A teammate, Lester Moré, defected three days earlier when the team was in New Jersey.

The two had not talked to each other about their plans. Moré and Alonso ended up as teammates on the Charleston Battery of the USL last season.

And of those left behind? Alonso said his parents were very sad at first, worrying about his well-being. But after several months, when they learned that he was happy and adapting, they became extremely supportive.

He said that the families of defectors suffer no reprisals from the Cuban government.

Alonso is married now, and has a young son. And as he was asked about his family life, a different wrinkle developed in the story of his defection.

A young woman he knew in Cuba, Liang Perez, had moved to America before Alonso’s defection. Her father lived in Mexico, Alonso said, which gave her open access to America. Once he arrived, the romance flared and they married.

Was that a part of the motivation to defect in the first place? A little bit, he admitted.

Life here, he said, is “night and day” from Cuba. “For example, going on vacation or visiting another country, or coming and going as you please … that’s not allowed in Cuba.”

So, Alonso offers an interesting perspective, and a reminder of the freedoms we take for granted.

It’s worth keeping in mind the next time you shop Wal-Mart – Gateway to America.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440