Real Salt Lake: Big risk equals big reward for Yordany Alvarez
Sandy • Yordany Alvarez remembers the fear about what he had just done.
Four years ago, the 27-year-old midfielder for Real Salt Lake was among three players who sneaked out of the back door of a Florida hotel and defected from their native Cuba in the middle of an international soccer tournament, stealing away under cover of night and riding away in a truck driven by a teammate's grandfather toward what he hoped would be a whole new life.
"I was so scared," Alvarez said.
So far, though, everything has turned out as Alvarez had hoped.
He eventually landed a pro soccer contract in the minor leagues, played well enough there to get a job with RSL last year, and now is preparing to start his first game of the season against FC Dallas on Saturday, in place of regular starter Kyle Beckerman, who's away with the U.S. national team.
"He's looking pretty sharp," coach Jason Kreis said, "so I think he's certainly ready for this opportunity."
The American Dream, personified.
But for a while, in the hours, days and weeks after Alvarez and his teammates calmly finished their postgame meal and executed their carefully planned defection Alvarez was still wearing his warm-ups after a 1-1 draw with the United States, carrying only a full backpack and a $500 traveling stipend he could not be sure of anything.
His name was all over the news. Cuban officials called him and his fellow defectors cowards and watched what was left of their under-23 national team fall far short of qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in China.
Even spotting what appeared to be a Cuban police officer at a gas station during their getaway from their team hotel in Tampa was cause for alarm. "We ran right back into the car," Alvarez recalled with a laugh, speaking through a translator.
Alvarez was among seven Cuban players who eventually would defect on that trip, seeking asylum under the "wet foot, dry foot" program that permits Cubans who reach American soil to stay and seek residency. All of them promptly lost themselves in the heavily Cuban community around Miami and West Palm Beach, supported largely by the charity of friends and supporters.
After a week or two of lying low, Alvarez rode four days on a Greyhound bus to reach California, where he had a trial with the Los Angeles Galaxy, just a few months before RSL beat them for the MLS Cup championship.
That didn't work out Alvarez said he sensed it wasn't a serious opportunity Â but he did later sign with the minor league Austin Aztex, following an open tryout. He wound up playing three years for the club, even as new owners moved it to Orlando last year and renamed it Orlando City S.C.
Alvarez led the team to a championship last season and was named the MVP of its USL Pro League.
All along, RSL had been watching.
So when his season was over, Alvarez joined the team on loan for the rest of its season. RSL eventually bought out his contract and signed him to a new three-year deal he's making $44,100 this season (according to the MLS Players Union), more than he could in Cuba in order to install him as the promising backup to Beckerman.
"They wouldn't be throwing money around like that â¦ if they didn't believe he was a very worthy player," goalkeeper Kyle Reynish said.
Alvarez has played just 19 minutes in four games this season, and he said he's thrilled to get the chance to start at least the next two games, with Beckerman, who has played every minute at defensive midfielder so far this season, expected to be gone through the middle of June.
"I'm super excited," Alvarez said in English, "because I'm going to play, and that's what I love to do."
Indeed, Alvarez said soccer was the reason he left friends and family behind and defected Â not specifically politics. He had started his career with his hometown team, FC Cienfuegos, but knew his communist government's policies would prevent him from pursuing a more lucrative career overseas.
So he has joined a small group of Cuban defectors who have played in MLS, including Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso and Chivas USA's Maykel Galindo, the one-time scoring ace who now plays for the minor league L.A. Blues, along with Jose Manuel Miranda and Erlys Garcia Baro, who both defected on the same trip as Alvarez.
In all, 15 players have defected from Cuba during games in the United States over the past decade.
Alvarez said he talks to friends and family in Cuba whenever he can and hopes one day he can return to his country. For now, though, he's reveling in the freedom and the opportunity that his risk four years ago has afforded him, knowing now that all that fear he felt that dark night in Tampa was worth it.
He has a green card.
He is a legal, permanent resident of the United States.
"My dream came true," he said, smiling.
Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas
P At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • 7 p.m.
TV • CW30
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM
Records • RSL 8-3-2, FC Dallas 3-7-4
Regular-season series • FC Dallas leads, 11-7-3
Last meeting • RSL 1, FC Dallas 1 (April 25, 2012)
About RSL • It's riding a five-game unbeaten streak and has won four straight home games. â¦ Forward Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola each has four goals to lead the team. â¦ It has never lost to FC Dallas in four games at Rio Tinto Stadium, and has won five straight meetings at home by a combined 13-4 score. â¦ Midfielder Javier Morales is likely out with a quadriceps injury, while defender Chris Schuler is out with a stress fracture in his foot. Defender Chris Wingert also is uncertain with a strained hamstring, with back-up Terakazu Tanaka poised to start in his place, if necessary. â¦ Goalkeeper Kyle Reynish is expected to make his second straight start in place of Nick Rimando, who's away along with midfielder Kyle Beckerman playing for the U.S. national team.
About FC Dallas • It's riding an eight-game winless streak after a 2-1 loss at Chicago on Wednesday, and is 0-5-1 on the road. â¦ Forward Blas Perez leads the team with four goals and three assists, but missed the previous meeting with RSL with a suspension. â¦ National-team midfielder Brek Shea will miss the game as part of a three-game suspension, while midfielders David Ferreira and Ricardo Villar, and defenders Ugo Ihemelu and Herman Pertuz are among those out injured. â¦ Dallas has allowed a league-worst 21 goals and registered only one shutout all season.