Carolina Challenge Cup

When: Wednesday

WHO: Houston Dynamo vs. Seattle Sounders, 5 p.m.; D.C. United vs. Charleston Battery, 7:15 p.m.

Where: Blackbaud Stadium

Tickets: 971-4625

From defector to MLS All-Star, Seattle star leading by example

BY ANDREW MILLER

apmiller@postandcourier.com

Osvaldo Alonso was relaxing in his hotel room before a game last summer when something on television caught his attention.

The Seattle Sounders' midfielder was flicking through the channels when he stumbled onto a story about three Cuban soccer players who had defected from the communist country and eventually landed in the Lowcountry, where they were playing for the Charleston Battery.

Alonso knew of the three players - goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper, midfielder Maikel Chang and striker Heviel Corodoves - but had never heard their tale.

He was riveted by their account of a daring escape from a Toronto hotel and march over the Canadian border to the United States.

It brought back a flood of memories for Alonso, who in 2007 pulled off a similar feat, slipping out of a Houston Wal-Mart when he was a member of the Cuban National team, and never looking back, eventually finding refuge in Charleston and stardom in Major League Soccer with Seattle.

When Cooper, Chang and Cordoves were interviewed, they talked about how Alonso's story from defector to MLS All-Star had inspired them to take similar action and leave Cuba.

Their words hit him like a thunderclap.

For the first time since leaving his home in St. Cristobal, Cuba, Alonso understood how important his decision to come to America was for not only him and his family, but for other Cuban soccer players looking for a better life.

It wasn't until he met Cooper, Chang and Cordoves face-to-face last week that Alonso fully understood the gravity of his actions seven years ago and the ripple effects that still spread across the world of soccer today. When he walked into the Three Lions Club at Blackbaud Stadium last Friday afternoon, suddenly those abstract ideals became a reality with a name - well, three names, and three eager faces.

It was a surreal moment for all four Cubans to finally be in the same room. They huddled together for about an hour, exchanging stories, talking about their families back in Cuba and, of course, about soccer.

"I couldn't believe I was actually getting to meet (Alonso), to talk to him," said Cooper, who was the Battery's starting keeper in 2013. "It was an honor to finally meet him."

Alonso couldn't help but feel a sense of pride in the small role he had played in the path the three had chosen to take.

"I know how hard it was to leave Cuba, to leave everyone they knew behind," Alonso said. "It is not an easy decision to make. To leave everything that you know to live your dream. They are very brave to do this. I'm glad we were finally able to meet and talk."

So much has changed for Alonso since he was in the Lowcountry six years ago. For starters, he can speak English. When he was in Charleston in 2008, he knew only a handful of words. While not exactly fluent in English now, he is proficient enough to do most of his interviews in the tongue on his adopted country.

John Wilson, the only remaining teammate from that 2008 Battery team, was able to carry on an extended conversation with Alonso for the first time.

"It was nice to finally be able to sit down and talk with him," Wilson said. "He's such a good guy and a great teammate. We had a guy on the team that could speak pretty good Spanish when he was here before, but at times it was difficult to communicate with him. It's been fun to talk with him now."

Alonso spent only a summer in Charleston and in that season helped lead the Battery to the U.S. Open Cup final against D.C. United. He scored two goals and had two assists and was named the club's newcomer of the year. It wasn't until a U.S. Open Cup match against the Houston Dynamo that Alonso felt like he could play in the MLS.

With temperatures hovering around 90 degrees at kickoff, the Battery was forced to play two-men down for a large chunk of the match because of red cards. Alonso electrified the crowd, making long runs up and down the field even into the second overtime period. The Battery eventually won on penalty kicks.

"It was a superhuman effort," said Charleston Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser. "It was a really hot night, even for Charleston, and we were down a couple of guys and he's making these runs in the 120th minute. Incredible. If MLS teams didn't know about him before that match, they knew about him after it. I think that put him on everyone's radar."

He signed with Seattle shortly after the 2008 season was over and had to prove himself all over again.

Alonso played with same reckless abandon when he joined the Sounders. He was a fearless midfielder and quickly established himself as a ferocious tackler.

"I only know one way to play the game, with all my heart," Alonso said.

He became a fan favorite in Seattle where he was voted the team's MVP four times and earned MLS Best XI honors after the 2012 season. He is the club's all-time leader in starts and minutes played. He has 15 goals and 16 assists in 184 career games.

"I don't think there's a better holding midfielder in MLS," said San Jose head coach and former Battery assistant coach Mark Watson. "He's an absolute beast out there. You'd better be ready to play when he's on the field."

Alonso, who has earned his American citizenship, has a dream of playing on the U.S. national team one day.

Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has talked with U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann about the possibility of Alonso joining the squad.

The problem for Alonso is that he has played for Cuba in World Cup competition and under international rules, a player cannot play for two countries. If Alonso is going to play for the United States, the Cubans will have to release him and there's almost no chance of that happening.

"Osvaldo can certainly play at that level," Schmid said. "Jurgen and I have talked about him and where he might fit on the team. I just don't see the Cubans doing anything to help him out. It's unfortunate."

Despite all of his success in MLS, Alonso has never forgotten where his professional career began. It's why this week at the Carolina Challenge Cup has been so special for him.

"Charleston will always be like a second home to me," Alonso said. "They gave me my first opportunity to play. I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to come back and play in front of the fans again, so this has meant a lot to me."

Alonso scored a goal in the Sounders' 2-1 victory over the Battery in Saturday night's opening round of the tournament. His strike from about 20 yards out highlighted an offensive side of his game that he has been working on for the last couple of seasons.

In typical Alonso fashion, the modest 28-year-old kept his celebration low key, not wanting to show up his old team or the fans that had once cheered for him.

"I didn't celebrate because this is the team that gave me my chance to play," Alonso said after the match. "I respect them too much. It's always hard to score against your old team."