The three Cuban national soccer team players scrambled down the back stairs of their Toronto hotel.
Odisnel Cooper, Maikel Chang and Heviel Cordoves took the stairs two at a time. The future Charleston Battery players were in the midst of defecting from their homeland, and were just steps away from freedom.
As the trio got to the final flight of stairs, Cordoves froze.
It was a brisk October afternoon, with temperatures hovering just below 40 degrees. For Cordoves, a native of Havana, it was absolutely frigid. Wearing only the light warm-up suit the Cuban team had supplied, Cordoves wanted to return to his hotel room, seven floors above, to get a heavier coat.
Chang and Cooper implored him to forget about it. Precious seconds were being wasted as the three argued about what to do.
Undeterred, Cordoves sprinted back up the stairs as Chang and Cooper started to mouth silent prayers.
“I said, ‘No, no way, do not go get your coat,’ ” Chang said this week through an interpreter. “I thought for sure we were going to get caught.”
Each understood the risks. If caught by team officials, they would be kicked off the national team and no longer be allowed to travel outside of Cuba. They also could end up in prison.
As Cordoves came bounding back down the stairs, Chang and Cooper looked at their watches. They carefully inched the exit door open and peered down each end of an alley. Their hearts were pounding as the door closed behind them.
There was no turning back.
The great escape
The genesis of their defection in October began seven months earlier, when the Cuban team was in Tennessee.
Cordoves and Chang, boyhood friends from Havana, were in their hotel room talking about what life would be like in the United States. The discussion lasted deep into the night as they pondered their soccer futures in Cuba. They had reached the elite professional league, the highest level of soccer in their country.
They had reached the glass ceiling and wanted another challenge.
“We talked about defecting that night,” Chang said. “But with no planning and no money, there was nothing we could do.”
Unbeknown to Cordoves and Chang, another Cuban player had similar ideas. After practice one afternoon, Cooper approached Cordoves and expressed his desire to defect. Although teammates, Cordoves was suspicious of Cooper, who was from Camaguey, the third-largest city in Cuba, some 300 miles from west of Havana.
“In Cuba you don’t talk to anyone about things like this,” Cordoves said. “You don’t know if he’s just saying he wants to defect so you’ll say the same thing. He could be working for the government. In the United States, no one thinks about things like that.”
With Cooper in the fold, the three decided to make their escape when the team traveled to Canada for a World Cup qualifying match.
Cordoves, who made just $8 a month playing for the national team, started to save money, working odd jobs and keeping the per diem money he would get from the team. It took six months, but he saved about $200, more than most Cubans make in a year.
After arriving in Toronto, they slipped away during a short break after lunch at the hotel. Once outside, the trio sprinted five or six blocks. They found a complete stranger, borrowed his cellphone, and with the help of Cordoves’ cousin, who lives in Canada, found sanctuary for a few hours.
“I don’t think I’ve ever run any faster in my life,” Cordoves said with a chuckle.
The next morning they were on a bus headed for Niagara Falls. Wearing their team warm-up suits, the men approached the border. Under the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy adopted under President Bill Clinton’s administration, any Cuban citizen who reaches U.S. soil can ask for asylum and seek citizenship.
Cooper said they were familiar with the policy but didn’t know what to expect at the border.
But when U.S. officials saw the Cuban flags on their clothes, the three defectors were welcomed with open arms.
“We were free,” Cooper said.
They traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., and spent the next four months training there. Arrangements were made for them to try out with the Battery in February.
The Alonso influence
Five years earlier, Cuban national team captain Osvaldo Alonso slipped out a side door of a Houston Walmart to gain his freedom. Another Cuban player, Lester Moore, defected during the same trip. Both men ended up playing for the Battery.
It was Alonso’s daring getaway and success in Major League Soccer that was the inspiration for Cooper, Chang and Cordoves. Alonso is considered a traitor by the Cuban government, but to the soccer community and players like Cooper, Chang and Cordoves, he’s a hero.
“The coaches, the government, don’t talk about Osvaldo,” Cooper said. “They don’t even acknowledge that he’s alive. He’s not a person. For us, he’s everything. He’s shown us that our dreams can come true.”
The Battery has become a haven for Cuban players. In all, six players from the country have suited up for the team.
“I’ve think what we’ve been able to do is to let the Cuban guys know that they’re going to get a fair shot to play here,” said Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser. “The success that Osvaldo had has really paved the way for the other guys. They see what he did here and want to be just like him, which is great for us.”
Making the adjustment
Cooper left a young wife, Schenet, back in Camaguey. Cooper said he told her about his plan to defect in advance, and had her support. They talk on the phone at least once a week and Cooper hopes to be reunited with her in the next year.
“I miss her,” he said. “It’s going to be a long year.”
Learning English has been a slow process for all three men. Cooper said he watches television to pick up new words every day.
Having second-year midfielder Jose Cuevas in the locker room has helped immensely in their transition. The son of migrant farm workers in California, Cuevas is bilingual and has helped with issues on and off the field.
Cuevas marvels at his teammates’ story.
“To hear them talk about Cuba, it’s amazing to think about what they did,” Cuevas said. “They left everything, family, friends, everyone and came here to chase their dream. It makes you appreciate what we’ve got here.”