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United midfielder Ozzie Alonso’s grit forged from Cuban defection

Minnesota United midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (6) prepares to kick the ball during the first half against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on March 30, 2019. Greg M. Cooper / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL -- Pro soccer clubs sometimes appease new prized players after they sign contracts. To make them happy, clubs have reluctantly allowed a newcomer to bring a friend along to train with the first team.

That happened with the Charleston Battery during their preseason in 2008. The South Carolina club in the lower-level United Soccer League signed Lester More, and the prolific goal scorer from Cuba, along with his agent, asked to have More’s compatriot tag along on short notice.

Instead of that buddy following the usual script by soon fading away, this interloper became the real catch. He was Ozzie Alonso.

Over the next 11 years, Alonso has run with that gifted opportunity and molded himself into the best defensive midfielder in MLS. With tenacity his calling card, Minnesota United’s new linchpin is expected to be in the starting lineup when the Loons (2-2) face the New York Red Bulls (1-2-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Harrison, N.J.

For Alonso to realize his American dream, he first needed to conjure the courage to leave Cuba, where then-communist dictator Fidel Castro’s ban on pro sports stifled Alonso’s livelihood.

Alonso grew up in San Cristobal, Cuba, a smaller inland town about 60 miles from Havana. With a soccer-playing father, he took up the sport as a toddler and began to play anywhere, including in the streets with a ball and two rocks for goalposts.

At 11, Alonso played for the Pinar del Rio providence team and helped them winn the Cuban championship in 2006. Meanwhile, he captained the Cuban under-23 youth team and was called up to the men’s national team. In 2007, that team qualified for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. (The same tournament which will be at Allianz Field in St. Paul on June 18).

While Alonso fantasized about defecting for years, viable options to do so were scarce. Unlike Cuban baseball players, who have had harrowing experiences going through other countries via sketchy connections and modes of transportation, Alonso found himself plopped down on U.S. soil.

“I say, ‘OK, now I think this is the time,’ ” Alonso recalled.

He felt like it was then or never. “I take the first one,” he said. “I don’t wait for the second.”

But he did hesitate. The Cuban team first traveled to New Jersey to play Mexico and Panama at Giants Stadium. That was when More defected.

The Cuban team then traveled to Houston for a match against Honduras. Beforehand, Alonso and others players went shopping at a local Wal-Mart, and that is when he walked away from his life in Cuba.

“It was tough because everything comes to my mind,” Alonso said in an interview. “I’m not going to go back to Cuba. I’m not going to see my family. It’s a tough decision. I said when I make it, I have to look forward and not look back. That’s what I did.”

All Alonso had were the clothes on his back, a backpack containing a light jacket and $700, which he had been diligently saving over the previous six months. He briskly exited the big-box store and started walking a few blocks with the traffic. He found a friendly car driver who spoke Spanish and allowed Alonso to make a phone call to a friend. That driver then took Alonso to the Greyhound bus station.

Headed for the Cuban enclave in Miami, Alonso spent half a day bouncing along on the bus. “No talk,” he said. “Just thinking, thinking, thinking.”

Leaving everything. His family. His friends. His country. Never going back.

Lost in a foreign country. No English skills. Few connections.

In Miami, he contacted Maykel Galindo, a Cuban who defected during the 2005 Gold Cup and was then playing for an MLS club that is now defunct, Chivas USA. Through Galindo, Alonso received a tryout for Chivas in Los Angeles, but he said a lack of employment papers scuttled the signing.

That brought him to Charleston, where current Loons assistant coaches Mark Watson and Ian Fuller were an assistant coach and a midfielder, respectively.

When More asked that same day to bring in Alonso, Watson recalled, “We were like, ‘Hmm. I guess.’ You’re just not sure of the quality.”

That didn’t take long to figure out.

“I literally just saw him strike a ball when he showed up the first day during warmups,” Fuller said. “By the way he stuck it, I said, ‘Whoa. We got something here.’ … Just technique. You can kind of see it and hear it. It’s just different sometimes in the way people can strike it.”

The Battery signed Alonso within days. As the season progressed, the South Carolina heat and humidity climbed. While other players began to wilt around a game’s 60-minute mark, Alonso powered through.

“I came from Cuba with nothing, so I came here with this opportunity to play for everything,” Alonso said. “… You keep fighting. I left my family to do something good here, so why stop for the weather? I say in my mind, nothing can stop me.”

Alonso impressed then-fellow USL club Seattle and coach Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders became an MLS expansion franchise in 2009 and signed Alonso that year; he led them to the top of the mountain as one of the league’s best clubs over the next 10 years. Alonso’s resume grew along with the team’s; he was team captain, named an MLS all-star four times and was on the league’s Best XI in 2012. He played in 277 games, winning the MLS Cup in 2016 and the U.S. Open Cup four times.

“He’s a hound dog,” said new Loons teammate and center back Ike Opara, a fellow Best XI player during his time in Kansas City. “He does not make it easy on the opposing midfield or opposing players anywhere.”

Alonso, nicknamed the Honey Badger, and Opara are the two veteran MLS additions brought to Minnesota to solidify a defense that set an MLS record by allowing 141 goals over a two-year span.

With a solid career already in the bag, Alonso says he still has a lot to play for. “I look back to 12 years ago,” he said. “I want to do more because I got my family that supports me.”

Alonso became a U.S. citizen in 2012 and has a wife and three kids in Miami. His father, mother and sister also have settled there, with the help of easing travel restrictions between the two countries and Cuba’s transition from the Castro regime.

Now 33, Alonso knows at his age he must rely on his understanding of the game to read angles and cut down space against often-faster opponents instead of relying on his athletic ability to cover every blade of grass like he did in Charleston and Seattle.

While his passing distribution has been underrated, his grit has been called out. About 25 percent of 140 MLS players surveyed by ESPN in 2017 said Alonso has the “biggest reputation for crossing the line with his behavior on the field.”

“He can be kind of a nasty player … tough and doesn’t take no (expletive),” said United midfielder Ethan Finlay, an eight-year MLS vet. “I love it. We need it. We didn’t have it. It’s important for us. It’s important for the dynamic of our team and our locker room.”