As the MLS Cup playoffs continue, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.
In the sixth installment, new media editor Fidencio Enriquez details the rapid ascent of Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who walked out of a Wal-Mart in Houston four years ago with big dreams and the ambition to fulfill them. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.
Located about an hour’s drive west of Havana lies the town of San Cristóbal.
Known best for its involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis – the US discovered that the Soviets had begun construction of a missile base in the nearby region, effectively beginning the most dangerous encounter of the Cold War – nearly 30,000 people call it home.
Included among those is Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso who, driven by the need to achieve better and bigger things, abandoned everything he knew on a fateful summer day in Houston in 2007.
It’s that same determination that has allowed Alonso to, in four short years, go from Cuban refugee to one of the brightest stars in Major League Soccer.
The Sport of Choice
In an island nation where baseball and boxing reign supreme, Alonso’s career to professional soccer is as unlikely as finding a Cuban who can’t dance.
Considering baseball legends Martín Dihigo and Luis Tiant and boxing greats Gerardo “Kid Gavilán” González and Teófilo Stevenson, it’s not hard to understand why Cuban kids look up to athletes in those sports and want to follow in their footsteps.
But when you’re a child who prefers to kick the ball instead of throw it, or curl a free kick instead of dealing a right hook, who do you turn to as your role model? For Alonso, his hero carried the distinguished title of “dad.”
“My father played soccer in Cuba,” Alonso said. “That’s where my love for soccer started.”
With Osvaldo Alonso Sr. as his coach beginning at the age of five, Osvaldito set out to become one of the best his nation had to offer.
“Since I was little, I was in an academy to develop as a soccer player,” Alonso said. “And at 16 years old, I had the chance to debut with FC Pinar del Rio in the first division in Cuba. That’s where it all started. I scored a goal and after that I was always on the first team.”
Alonso soon turned league success into international call-ups. He made his senior debut in September 2006 – the same year he won the league championship with Pinar del Rio – and was named captain of the U-23 team for 2008 Olympic qualifying.
But Alonso was playing in essentially a glorified amateur league – “In Cuba, there is no professional league,” he said – and he knew that to achieve bigger and better things, he’d have to leave everyone and everything he knew behind.
The Great Escape
If Alonso wanted to pull off his plan, he couldn’t tell anyone.
Since he found out that Cuba would take part in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Alonso knew his best chance to desert was during the tournament. He decided to take it in Houston.
With the team officials on high alert – Cuban forward Lester More had snuck out of the team hotel in New Jersey just days earlier – Alonso knew his window was now only half open and closing fast. But like a good midfielder, he saw an opening during a team outing and ran with it.
The team had visited a Wal-Mart, and while teammates and coaches browsed around, Alonso slowly straggled behind until he had slipped away from view. He then simply walked out the door, all the while feeling like his heart would burst out of his chest.
“The hardest moment of my life was the day I decided to desert,” he said. “The first day I abandoned the Cuban delegation, that was the hardest day.
“So many things were going through my head,” he continued. “You don’t know what to do when you’re in a new country, dealing with a new language. At that moment, I didn’t know what to do.”
Alonso eventually gathered himself, managed to call a friend in Miami, and a couple of hours later, he was on a bus en route to Florida.
No sooner had news broken out that Alonso had deserted the Cuban national team, he learned that Chivas USA, who included Cuban striker Maykel Galindo in their ranks, were interested in his services.
“When I deserted, [Chivas USA] asked Galindo if he knew me, if he could get in touch with me,” Alonso said. “They wanted me to go there and train.”
For a few months, Alonso trained with the Rojiblancos as he awaited his immigration papers.
He impressed the MLS side so much that they wanted him to stay. Chivas offered him a developmental contract, which would pay him $12,900. But Alonso didn’t care as much about the money than he did about the playing time, and when he heard the USL’s Charleston Battery wanted his services, Alonso jumped on the offer.
“[Chivas USA] asked me to stay with them. They offered me that contract, but I refused it,” Alonso said. “I then decided to go with Charleston. I wanted to play, to have the chance to showcase myself, and Charleston was the team that offered me that.”
Compared to Cuba, living in Charleston was like night and day. Trying to adapt to a new culture, a new language and a new way of life wasn’t the easiest of tasks for Alonso. In fact, just getting used to the idea that you could make a living off of playing soccer was still relatively new for him.
But if he was having any difficulties assimilating to life outside the field, on it, he was totally at home.
The Sounders Come Calling
In the 2008 season – his first and only with the Battery – Alonso helped guide Charleston to the US Open Cup final, where they were edged 2-1 by D.C. United. Despite falling short, Alonso had proven his worth. He scored four goals and added two assists in 23 games that season, nabbing first-team all-USL and Rookie of the Year honors.
“I think that going to Charleston was the best choice I made,” Alonso said. “In Charleston, I had more opportunities to play more, more options to be noticed.”
There was at least one team taking who had set their sights on him.
The Seattle Sounders were preparing for their inaugural MLS campaign in 2009, but they felt that to compete, they needed to acquire a high-energy central midfielder with a dogged penchant for winning the ball.
After facing Charleston a handful of times in 2008 in USL play, it didn’t take the Seattle brass very long to figure out they wanted Alonso to fill that spot.
“Obviously, he had played in Charleston in the USL, and so the Sounders – Brian Schmetzer and Adrian [Hanauer], and Chris Henderson was already here at the time – had gotten a good look at him and seen him,” explained Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, who was the man appointed to helm Seattle in December 2008. “So by the time I came here to the club, he was a player that they mentioned to me.”
Interestingly enough, Alonso’s was a name Schmid already recognized from his days with the Columbus Crew.
“Ironically, while I was at Columbus, Ozzie had a tryout with me. ... I wanted to sign him at Columbus, but I only had a developmental contract,” Schmid explained. “He didn’t want to sign a developmental contract, and so from Columbus, he went to Chivas. Chivas didn’t sign him. The agent called us again, we again said we’d sign him to a developmental contract, they said no, and then he went to Charleston.
“So when … Adrian and Schmetzer said, ‘Hey, we really like this guy,’ they didn’t’ have to ask me very often. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go get him.’”
Thus, in January 2009, Alonso was off to a new destination, a place where he’d again have to start anew, but one where he would quickly make a name for himself.
Making Waves, Winning Games
2009 holds a very special place in Alonso’s heart.
While first-year expansion clubs typically struggle in their inaugural MLS season, an über-competitive Alonso would make sure that didn’t happen.
From the initial whistle that kicked off the Sounders’ MLS era, Alonso was determined to establish himself in the league as one of the best. He quickly became the engine of the team – he played a full 90 minutes in 26 of his 28 starts that year – providing consistency as the team captured a US Open Cup title.
That trophy signified the world to Alonso.
“That was my first title [in the US],” he said. “It was big for me. My first year in MLS, my first year playing in the top flight, and I win that title. That was one of my biggest accomplishments thus far.”
Of course, Alonso’s fame just keeps growing. Considered among the best in his positions just three years into his MLS career, his reputation as a gritty and tenacious ball-winner is now being complemented by an improved passing game, and he’s turning lots of heads, especially with some of the goals he’s scored this season.
“I think people are more aware of him now,” Schmid said. “The people that follow the league, the fans that are fans of the league, and even the fans of the individual teams and the coaches in the league, I think if you asked them, ‘Who would be a player you’d wanna pluck off the Seattle team?’ I think Ozzie’s name would be up there in the top two or three.”
But as accolades and memorable moments – like his 96th-minute goal vs. Chicago in this year’s US Open Cup final, or his brace against Comunicaciones to put Seattle into the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time – keep piling up, it just serves as more fuel to motivate Alonso to achieve greater things.
Currently, the goal is to win MLS Cup 2011, which is a little difficult considering they’re trailing Real Salt Lake 3-0 going into the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal matchup on Thursday.
“Winning the MLS Cup would be a tremendous dream,” said Alonso. “To win the Open Cup and close it with an MLS Cup would be dream come true.”
Still, he remains confident that helping Seattle win the MLS Cup is just a matter of time.
Until then, Alonso will just keep giving it all in the middle of the Sounders lineup, living the American dream.
“Since I deserted and had the chance to start playing soccer, I’ve reflected on every step I’ve taken,” he said, “and I’m super happy to have stayed in this country.”