Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cuban Defectors Adjust to a New Life

LOS ANGELES — Under a sunny sky on a manicured soccer field, the drill was repeated over and over for 15 minutes. Maykel Galindo would settle a cross just outside the top of the penalty area, then try to figure out a way to put the ball past the man in goal.

Sometimes, Galindo demonstrated the skill that has made him one of the most dangerous strikers in Major League Soccer. Other times, it was the unfamiliar goalkeeper who would make an acrobatic save or force a miss that left his opponent cursing in Spanish.

Most of Galindo’s Chivas USA teammates and coaches, their practice over, watched from the sideline benches a routine that might have played out at any soccer club anywhere in the world: goal scorer versus goalkeeper.

But this scene in late April was not about mano a mano. It was Cubano a Cubano, a chance to look out and see not only the past but also a future.

“I felt like I was in Havana,” the goalkeeper, José Manuel Miranda, said through an interpreter.

Almost two months ago, Miranda was among seven players who walked away from Cuba’s under-23 men’s soccer team during an Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa, Fla.

He recently joined two of the others — midfielder Yordany Alvárez and defender Yenier Bermúdez — on a four-day bus ride from Miami for a tryout with the Los Angeles Galaxy. After the Galaxy declined to offer them contracts, they trained for two days with Chivas USA, the other M.L.S. team in Los Angeles. But Chivas USA also declined to keep them on.

Despite the setbacks, Miranda, Alvárez and Bermúdez hardly seem discouraged. They met with an immigration official at the end of April to begin seeking work permits, driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and green cards.

For now, they are relying on the largess of a network that runs through Cuban and soccer communities in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. They have received food, clothing, transportation, a cellphone and lodging. They also have the opportunity to stay in shape by playing several semiprofessional games each week. They earn $40 to $50 each per game, which Miranda said was about five times their monthly salary at the national soccer academy in Cuba.

“The Cuban community is very tight knit and very good at taking care of their own people,” said Alicia Molina, a lawyer for the nonprofit International Institute of Los Angeles who is representing the players in their applications for work permits. “This is not a typical experience of an immigrant, but it is typical of a Cuban.”

It is not, however, the typical path for a Cuban soccer player. Nearly 150 baseball players are known to have defected from Cuba, according to the Web site Among them are well-known major leaguers like Orlando Hernández, Liván Hernández and José Contreras.

But before Galindo’s defection during the Concacaf Gold Cup in 2005, when he sneaked out of the team hotel in Seattle, hopped on a city bus and asked the driver to call a Spanish-speaking high school teacher he had just met, soccer players only occasionally left for the United States. And none have caused more than a ripple in M.L.S.

After playing two seasons in Seattle for a second-tier pro league team, Galindo joined Chivas USA last year and became one of the league’s top scorers, with 12 goals, as his new team compiled the second-best regular-season record in M.L.S. This season, he is making $79,500.

In Cuba, the three young players became familiar with Galindo’s success because they watched pirated broadcasts of M.L.S. games. Miranda described their defections as “an important experience” because it planted the idea that they could make a living doing what they love.

“The idea of playing professional sports was completely foreign to us,” Miranda said. “It hadn’t occurred to us as an option.”

The role of flag bearer is one that Galindo plays reluctantly. He has been hesitant to comment about Cuban issues, including Fidel Castro’s passing of power to his brother, Raúl, earlier this year.

“When the seven guys left in Florida, the head of the Cuban soccer federation announced that Maykel is responsible for that,” said Galindo, who said he had not met the three players here until last week. “When I decided to come, I did it by myself. I didn’t recommend anybody else do it. But now that they’re here, I’m going to do what I can to help them.”

Galindo said there were no repercussions for his family when he left.

But after his defection, Bermúdez said his brother was dismissed from Cuba’s under-20 team. And when he called his mother from Florida, he said, the line was cut off. Bermúdez also left a girlfriend behind.

“I feel responsible for my brother,” he said through an interpreter. “It wasn’t his fault. It was my fault. He knew nothing.”

This and being branded a traitor by Cuban officials only increase his desire to succeed.

Bermúdez and Alvárez are 22, and Miranda is 21. Each showed his capabilities on the field in Florida, when Cuba tied the heavily favored United States, 1-1. Miranda made eight saves, Alvárez assisted on the goal and Bermúdez captained the team.

Chivas USA Coach Preki, who gave extensive tryouts to two other Cuban defectors last summer, said their will and skill would be tested.

“It’s about surviving, and Maykel is a survivor, but Maykel also has a quality,” he said, noting Galindo’s speed. “It goes hand in hand. You can bring a survivor here, but can he play the game?”

Paul Bravo, the Galaxy’s director of soccer, said the three men will probably be best served playing in the lower-level United Soccer Leagues.

“These guys are good athletes and have good minds for the game,” Bravo said. “I hope they make it. It’s not easy to walk away from the possibility of going to the Olympics, but they’re like a lot of people in Cuba — not just athletes. They’re looking for a better way of life.”

Alvárez and Miranda expressed disappointment with how the Galaxy tryout went, but they shrugged it off as a learning experience. In the last two months, they have had plenty. There was the cross-country trip, in which they did not shower, they survived on soda and junk food, and they endured standing at the side of a highway outside San Antonio one night when their bus broke down. There was practicing with David Beckham, whose poster hung in Miranda’s room in Cuba.

“They’re very happy now,” said Federico Velasquez, a Cuban immigrant and high school Spanish teacher from West New York, N.J., who has been their de facto agent, calling teams and finding places for them to stay. “They know everything is not easy, but they want to play professionally. They appreciate the opportunity they are getting.”

They hope, if work permits are secured, for another tryout. Until then, they will play as often as they can and take everything in, as they did recently on the freeway. They were quietly taking in sights that seemed foreign at every turn when they spotted a familiar one up in the hills.

“It was the sign that read Hollywood,” Bermúdez said. “We started taking photos. We’d only seen it in films.”

As he spoke, he became animated, his voice rising and eyes widening. It was as if, in his own mind, he was picturing something else he had seen before — a Hollywood ending.

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