Of the many paths Sounders players have taken to Seattle, Alonso’s isn’t the longest or the most winding. Yet it’s hard to imagine that any are more dramatic.
Osvaldo Alonso walked.
Of the many paths Sounders players have taken to Seattle, Alonso’s isn’t the longest or the most winding. Yet it’s hard to imagine any are more dramatic.
Alonso traveled to the U.S. with the Cuban national team for the 2007 Gold Cup “and I decided to stay here to play professionally,” he said.
This is the second installment of our three-part series leading up to the season opener Sunday vs. New England, on the global influences on MLS.
Friday: How the Sounders and other MLS teams build a global scouting network.
Saturday: The unique paths taken by Sounders players.
Sunday: How Sounders players have broken down the language barrier on and off the field.
If only it were that simple. Staying here meant turning his back on his family and friends back home, renouncing his Cuban citizenship. Staying here meant defecting.
Sounders season preview:
- For Sounders and other MLS teams, building a global scouting network is a long process
- Osvaldo Alonso's journey from Cuba to Sounders 'a little crazy'
- Seattle players' union rep Brad Evans details successful CBA talks, discusses leaks
- Rounding up MLS season previews: Seattle is Cup favorite
- Sounders unveil new primary, away uniforms, open Pioneer Square clubhouse
- Listen: Sigi Schmid talks the Sounders opener on KJR
Alonso had formulated his plan from the moment his country qualified for the continental championship, but his opening didn’t come until Cuba’s second stop, in Houston. He’d started both of Cuba’s two matches in the tournament, a defeat against Mexico and a draw with Panama, both at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Then, while shopping at Wal-Mart with some teammates in Texas, Alonso eased away from the group.
“I felt like that was the right time to leave the team and walk away,” Alonso said.
“After that it was a little crazy. I was walking like three, five blocks.”
Frantically, Alonso approached a stranger on the street and asked if he spoke Spanish. Answered in the affirmative, Alonso shared his story. In return, he got a phone to call some friends in Miami and a ride to a Greyhound bus station.
He hadn’t told a single soul about his plans to defect, and he hasn’t been back to Cuba since — though he finally will be eligible to apply for a travel visa in June.
“It was a lot of things,” Alonso said. “I left my family. A lot of my family was in Cuba. It was a big decision for me, but when that moment came, looking forward to my future, for me, I had to do it. It was hard for me.”
Alonso connected with that group of friends in Miami, trained with Chivas USA before ultimately opting to sign with the Charleston Battery of USL-Pro. Before the 2009 season, an opportunity arose with the MLS expansion Sounders.
Alonso made the decision to walk, but not even he knew where the road might lead.
“Looking back, eight years ago, I have no idea that this was going to happen to me,” Alonso said.
A different world
Micheal Azira leapt into the unknown.
NAIA men’s soccer powerhouse Lindsay Wilson College has been recruiting African players to tiny Columbia, Ky., since 1995, but it rarely does so sight unseen.
In the 1990s, this meant relying on VHS tapes and local scouts. By the mid-2000s, the school had branched outward from Kenya. Longtime coach Ray Wells estimates he’s made 25 recruiting trips to the continent over the years, at least one a year, sometimes two.
Azira, a midfielder from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, was an unknown quantity. The Blue Raiders coaching staff had not seen him play live before offering him a full scholarship.
“We really kind of took a risk,” Wells said.
Azira did, too. The son of a father who works for a transportation company and a mother who is a retired steel supplier, Azira traveled throughout Africa and Europe in his youth — Denmark, Belgium, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Morocco. Rural Kentucky, though, was a new one.
Wells admits Lindsay Wilson’s location well off the beaten path was one of the spurs to setting up its East African network in the first place.
“Being a small school in a small town, it’s sometimes very difficult for us to recruit the best American players,” Wells said.
The adjustment took time. Azira, who likely will replace Alonso in the Seattle midfield for the season opener Sunday if the latter hasn’t fully recovered from offseason groin surgery, is smooth. So smooth, in fact, his languidness can be read as lack of effort. At first, Wells struggled to get the most out of his new signing.
“It was rough, but I knew I could make it work,” Azira said. “Everybody asks, ‘How do you make it?’ But it’s life. You have to make it work somewhere.”
Azira did more than make it. He helped win Wells’ eighth NAIA national championship — his Blue Raiders have since added a ninth — before transferring to the University of Mobile. He’s played professionally in Jackson, Miss., Charleston, S.C., and now Seattle.
“You never know where life takes you,” Azira said. “I leave the doors open.”
Azira could have turned pro early but stayed in school long enough to earn his business degree, just in case.
Willing to relocate
Kevin Parsemain didn’t have much of a choice.
Growing up on the tiny Caribbean island of Martinique, Parsemain dreamed about becoming a professional soccer player from the time he was little.
“But in Martinique, it’s not professional,” Parsemain said.
So the forward went to France, first with Le Mans FC then with Evian. He spent a spell back home in Martinique’s Championnat National before accepting a trial with Seattle. Here, he’s become something of a cult hero despite missing most of last season following a knee injury, earning his spot with a torrid 2014 preseason.
That’s not to say Parsemain has forgotten about his homeland.
He’s the captain of Martinique’s national team. He steered it into the 2013 Gold Cup in the U.S., where “Les Matinino” became the tournament’s darling with an opening-night upset of Canada. Martinique then lost 1-0 to Panama at CenturyLink Field and fell to Mexico in its make-or-break finale in Denver despite Parsemain’s 34th-minute penalty-kick goal.
“I don’t know if you can even imagine playing in front of 30,000 Mexicans,” Parsemain said. “It was amazing for the guys. When you share that kind of moment with them, it’s amazing.
“It makes me proud to be the captain of a little island like this and play against the big countries.”
The island — 50 miles long and 24 miles wide at its edges — boasts great beaches and great weather, Parsemain tells you, the captain temporarily turning into a travel agent.
“It’s kind of paradise,” Parsemain said.
He likes Seattle, too, its culture and its cleanliness. He first fell for it while in town for the Gold Cup — the Pacific Northwest summer seducing another victim — and was thrilled when he heard about the Sounders’ interest.
“I don’t mind changing countries or moving here or there,” Parsemain said.
“If I can play soccer, I’m happy.”