One Cuban soccer player is able to chase his pro dream in the U.S. — without defecting


A report by Steven Goff for The Washington Post.

For decades, Cubans seeking athletic promise beyond their restrictive borders have dashed from U.S. hotels or disappeared into stadium shadows, choosing to leave behind family and friends for liberty and opportunity.

Luis Paradela carried many of the same dreams, seeking to grow as a soccer player outside the unfulfilling Cuban league. At 22, he is at a prime age to follow the bold and heart-wrenching path set by dozens of defecting athletes since international opportunity turned scarce after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

Paradela is now in Nevada, playing for Reno 1868 FC, a second-division club affiliated with MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes. He did not, however, sneak away in the middle of the night during an international tournament.

He applied for a visa, like any other foreign athlete joining a U.S. pro outfit. No other Cuban has taken such a formal path, one that allows him to return home and retain good standing with the national team, which will visit Washington on Friday for a Concacaf Nations League match against the United States at Audi Field.

Cuba bans defectors from continuing to represent it.

Paradela is believed to be the only Cuban athlete in 60 years to join a U.S. sports team on a visa.

Asked about his uncommon entry, he said through an interpreter: “Everyone makes their own choices. … I don’t want this to be a unique experience for Cuban football. I want this to be the beginning of an opportunity for Cuban football.”

Opportunity for baseball players, the most coveted of Cuban athletes, was on the verge of improving this year through an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Baseball Federation of Cuba for streamlined entry. Players would no longer have to take often-dangerous treks to defect.

In April, however, the Trump administration declared it illegal, citing U.S. sanctions on the Cuban government, which oversees the country’s baseball federation.

Paradela’s situation was different because it did not directly involve the Football Association of Cuba. Rather, Reno acquired him on loan from a Guatemalan pro club, Universidad de San Carlos, his employer since early this year.

Typically, an athlete arriving from abroad must wait two or three weeks for visa approval. In Paradela’s case, it took about three months.

Doug Raftery, Reno’s general manager, said Paradela “hopes it creates waves without defecting.”

Paradela, a forward, arrived in late August and has appeared as a substitute in four of a possible seven matches for Reno, which stands third in the USL Championship’s Western Conference with two games left before the playoffs.

While there is always a possibility Paradela could seek asylum here, Reno team operations manager Robert Ritchie said, “He expressed to us and to the Cuban [federation] he had no desire to move here at the expense of his standing with the [federation] and government.

“At this point, [defecting] is somewhat of a tried-and-true method for Cubans to get here to play sport. He really expressed a strong desire not to follow in that way.”

More than 50 Cuban soccer players have defected since 1999, the most notable being midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, 33, who enjoyed a standout, 10-year career with the Seattle Sounders before joining Minnesota United this season.

Four skipped out during the Gold Cup this summer in the United States.

Most Cuban players are not highly regarded and do not make it far in the U.S.-based leagues. And few Cubans compete professionally outside their country: From the Gold Cup roster this summer, five were stationed in the low-level Dominican circuit, two in Guatemala and one in Panama. Cuba lost its three group matches by a combined 17-0.

Reno officials, in association with their San Jose counterparts in MLS, identified Paradela during the Gold Cup, in which he made three starts. Previously, he scored five goals in four Nations League qualifiers.

Once a deal was struck, Paradela and the Reno organization applied for an 18-month visa, which, given the circumstances, “became a little challenging,” Ritchie said. So the visa is through the end of the season.

The transcending elements of acquiring Paradela, Raftery said, are “certainly not the reason we signed him, but we do appreciate it. Until we got deep into the process, we didn’t really recognize what was going on.”

After the season, Reno and San Jose will assess Paradela’s performance in matches and training sessions before deciding whether to exercise an option to buy his contract next season.

Paradela seems to want to stay. In Reno, he said, “it is another level. It helps my development. I have learned a lot of new things I wouldn’t have learned elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, he will try to help his national team, which is 178th in the FIFA rankingsand 25th among 35 countries in the middling Concacaf region.

“Cuban football is developing,” Paradela said. “We have good, young talent in Cuba. We hope they stay on the right path. As more Cuban players go to play in other leagues, it makes us better.”

As for Cuba’s chances against the United States, “It’s no secret the United States is on another level, but that does not mean we are going to roll over,” he said. “We are going to play hard, and hopefully the results will show it.”

The opportunity to play for his country, in the capital city of Cuba’s long-standing political adversary and in a nation that has given him a fresh chance, is not lost on Paradela.

“It’s emotional,” he said, “and it’s beautiful.”

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