Feb. 20, 2007
By Andrea Canales, LASoccerNews Associate Editor
A NEW BEGINNING
Cuban player in U.S. top-flight
Former Cuban national team player Maykel Galindo signed with Chivas USA, marking his advance to Major League Soccer as the next step in an at times arduous journey.
|Maykel Galindo in action during Chivas USA's preseason training.
Juan Miranda/Chivas USA
“I felt very happy because I’d done something that I’d dreamed of, first as a professional player, which was an opportunity granted to me by Seattle, then I had the opportunity here to advance to the top level of professional soccer, which is MLS,” said Gallindo. “It was a dream that has now become real.”
That dream started long ago on the island where Fidel Castro held sway. Castro’s love for athletics meant that even when the country’s resources were few, physically gifted children like Galindo could join the national sports programs.
“It was very hard in Cuba,” recalled Galindo of his childhood. “It’s not like here, where the kids always have cleats and soccer balls. We would play barefoot, or we’d wear whatever shoes we had, and we’d make balls out of anything we could sometimes.”
Galindo’s talent earned him an opportunity early on.
“When I was young I was picked for one of the youth training camps for the national team, and I stayed with the squad.”
As a member of Cuba’s national team, Galindo competed in the 2002 and 2003 Gold Cup. As his professional options were limited under Cuba’s structure, he began to consider taking a chance and leaving the country when he could.
“In 2005, I was more mature, both as a player and a person,” explained Galindo.
He played against the U.S. with his Cuban team during their Gold Cup clash in Seattle, scoring Cuba’s lone goal in the loss.
After the match, Galindo evaded his Cuban caretakers, and hopped on a city bus. He borrowed a cell phone and dialed the one number he knew locally, that of the team’s U.S. liaison, Alex Zahajko.
Seattle police were dispatched to ensure his safety and the officers were the first to welcome him to the United States.
“I decided to stay,” said Galindo, who worked through the early steps of applying for political asylum while living in Seattle, where he joined the local USL First Division team. “The Seattle Sounders took me on, and we won a championship.”
In some ways, it could be viewed that the next team to sign him, Chivas USA, owed Galindo a bit of a favor.
“In a friendly against Chivas USA, I had an accident that stopped the progress of my career for a while,” recalled Galindo.
In fact, it was a horrific collision with the knee of Chivas USA goalkeeper Preston Burpo that crushed numerous bones in Galindo’s face. Burpo, a former Sounder himself, leaped for a ball as Galindo raced full-speed into him. Now the players are reunited again on Chivas USA.
“I recovered and am progressing again,” said Galindo. “I played the last few games of the past season with the Sounders, and now I’ve got the opportunity to play with Chivas USA. It just makes all the sacrifices worthwhile. I’m very excited to be experiencing this now.”
That excitement, however, had not dulled the pain of not seeing his family again since he defected from Cuba.
“Sadly, I haven’t,” admitted Galindo. “It’s very hard.”
The forward was doing what he could to send aid.
“I have a big responsibility to my relatives in Cuba. I’m the only son in my family. It was very hard for me to leave them, though they understood my decision. I’m helping them as much as I can. I left to be able to send them more assistance.”
One of his remaining dreams was to see his family again.
“I’m hoping and working to find a way to see them again, but they would probably have to come here,” stated Galindo.
He realized his actions would be considered criminal by the current Cuban government.
“It would be very hard for me to ever return to Cuba, after what happened here,” said Galindo, who strives to maintain contact with his family despite the obstacles.
“We keep in touch, by phone and by mail. Thank God, they understand my decision and they know I did what I did to help them live a little better than they were before in Cuba. With what I’m able to send, they’re more secure. We miss each other a lot, though. I’m just grateful they’re all right in Cuba.”
With the age and declining health of Castro, many Cuban exiles have dared to hope the regime would change upon his death, with a more democratic order established.
“Hopefully, it will get better,” speculated Galindo. “It depends on the world and the Cuban public as well. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I talk to a lot of people in Cuba, and no one knows what’s going to happen when Castro dies. No one knows who will become president.”
Perhaps understandably, Galindo seemed more resigned than hopeful.
“Realistically, I think it might change a little, but not much. I think they’re going to try to keep things the same,” said Galindo.
He was more optimistic about building chemistry with his new Chivas USA teammates, and building on their playoff appearance from last year.
“With the experience of the players and what they achieved last year, I think we’re going to do well,” declared Galindo.
His time with the squad in preseason was already being well-spent, and he felt comfortable with the club’s personnel.
“I think we’ve worked together very well, and everyone with the club has treated me wonderfully,” acknowledged Galindo. “That gives me more confidence when joining a club. We’ve been working hard in the preseason, lots of hard physical work, but those are the sacrifices needed for success.”
Sacrifice is nothing new to Galindo; it’s just another step on the journey.