It was as simple as hitching a ride on the bus.
"No one knew what I was going to do. I kept this to myself for four months before I arrived in Los Angeles. When I was in Europe with the Cuban national soccer team, I decided to make the decision that when I arrived in the U.S. [that] I was not going to return to Cuba," said Maykel Galindo, now one of the stars of Chivas USA. "I didn't talk to anyone -- not even my family -- because if you tell someone in Cuba, it becomes very difficult for one to leave that country."
During a trip to Seattle for the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Galindo took an opportune moment to slip away from team officials and board a bus. Rather then traveling to Qwest Field for the team's next game in the first round of the tournament, Galindo was turning his back on a promising career with the Cuban national team as the team's leading striker. He did not know if he'd ever play soccer again. Eventually, Galindo landed in a police station and then in the house of Alejandro Zahajko, the team's interpreter, who gave him a home during those trying times.
Now the times aren't quite so trying for Galindo. In his first year with Chivas USA, he has been more than a bright spot. With good size and explosive speed, the 26-year-old forward has helped carry his team into the playoffs with 12 goals. Chivas USA's first-place finish in the Western Conference is a record result for the club and has everything to do with the talented Cuban.
However, Galindo still remembers the lows as if they were yesterday.
He stayed in Seattle, earning a spot with the Sounders of the USL. The cold weather and the rain of Pacific Northwest -- all so unfamiliar to a son of the Caribbean -- still stick with him. As chilling as the forecast was, the coldest aspect of his new home was dwelling in the confines of a city where everyone was a stranger. Seemingly alone at times, Galindo began to make friends with his feet.
He does not remember the opponent or even the exact score, but he remembers the embrace of the Seattle fans quite well. It was his first game with the Sounders. Jitters were high as emotions ran through his body; despite being well into his 20s, this was his first game as a professional soccer player at any level -- Cuba does not have a professional league. Galindo put together a solid performance in his debut and was substituted out with about 15 minutes to go. He remembers the handshake from his coach, then looking into the crowd.
|MLS Cup playoffs second leg|
|Chivas USA vs. Kansas City, |
"The fans stood up and cheered for me as a sign of thanks," Galindo said of a moment that holds special significance for him. "That was when it hit me I had made it in the United States."
Another year with Seattle followed before he had an opportunity with MLS. Although Seattle was a good learning experience for him, he recognized that the move away from the USL would provide a bigger stage on which he could shine. It would also be another test.
Current U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley had been keeping a watchful eye on Galindo and was keen to bring him into the squad as his revamped Chivas USA team looked to build on the results of its 2006 campaign. Galindo expresses his gratitude to Bradley, a coach for whom he never had a chance to play. Terming Chivas USA as "unified," Galindo has provided the offensive firepower the team desperately needed.
With 12 goals and five assists, Galindo paces the team's offensive output, leading the team in scoring. He has shown a penchant for the spectacular, shooting from distance and partnering with the ever-youthful Ante Razov to create one of the league's top scoring tandems. Very few forwards in the league have played as precise one-touch soccer as the Galindo-Razov duo when both are on the field.
"I compare him to Jeff Cunningham, with half the tricks," said Kansas City Wizards defender Nick Garcia, who will be following Galindo closely on Saturday when the two teams meet in the second leg of their playoff series. "He flies. I have a lot of respect for the guy. I think he's a great player."
"Maykel has definitely brought a scoring touch. It is pretty obvious that he can finish and combined with Ante, that has been huge for us," Chivas USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "He is the type of player who can pick up the ball anywhere and be a threat to score. I think he has also started to understand what exactly it takes to be successful in this league."
The feeling is mutual.
"I really like the brotherhood that this team has; I believe that when one enters a locker room that is friendly and a great atmosphere, things are much easier," Galindo said of his teammates in Los Angeles. "When I talk to Claudio [Suarez] who's had years of experience and he talks to me like he has known me for years and he gives me advice and that is very helpful."
Saturday's playoff game versus Kansas City will be a real test for the Cuban. Expected to start, Galindo will be without strike partner Razov, who's out with a knee injury, for the most crucial game of the season. Despite this, the Wizards won't be backing down in their effort to neutralize the goal scorer.
"Galindo, [Luciano] Emilio and [Juan Pablo] Angel," Garcia said, "those three, for me, are the three best strikers in the league."
In addition to his MLS career, Galindo might be eligible to play for his new homeland as a political defector. Under the rules set forth by FIFA in Article 15 of the governing body's statutes, refugees are eligible to petition to play for another national team, even if they are already cap-tied. Should Galindo obtain citizenship, any request to play for the United States would then have to be examined against the background of the above article, especially since he already has made international appearances for Cuba.
A lethal finisher with range, Galindo appears to be the type of player who could figure prominently for the U.S. Right now though, his heart remains elsewhere.
"I would never play for any national team because I have already played with Cuba," Galindo said. "The U.S. is a strong and unique team, they have gone to World Cups, they have gone to Copa America and other places that I didn't travel with the Cuban national team, but I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing a jersey that wasn't a Cuban one."
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.