Sounders’ Alonso, a man without a country, can’t play in World Cup

  • By John Boyle Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, May 21, 2014 6:18pm
  • SportsSports

Osvaldo Alonso shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t be helping the Sounders prepare for Saturday’s game in Vancouver.

Alonso’s presence is a blessing for the Sounders, who are already missing three of their top players as Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and DeAndre Yedlin train with the U.S. national team in preparation for the 2014 World Cup.

But as important as the midfielder is for the first-place Sounders, if things had worked out a little differently, he would probably be with Dempsey, Evans and Yedlin right now, and not on a practice field in Tukwila.

Alonso, who defected from Cuba in 2007, and became a U.S. citizen in 2012, is a player talented enough to be in Brazil for next month’s World Cup — or at the very least to be one of the 30-players battling for a spot on the U.S. roster — but at the moment he is also, from an international soccer perspective, a man without a country. Having played for Cuba in international competition before defecting, Alonso is “cap-tied” to Cuba despite his current citizenship. In order for FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to allow a switch, Cuba would have to provide paperwork essentially releasing him, something a country with a history of losing its best athletes to defections has little incentive to do.

Last year there was some hope for Alonso as U.S. Soccer, the Sounders and Alonso’s agent all worked to try make him eligible for a one-time switch, but with the World Cup now less than a month away, and preliminary rosters selected, that chance has officially passed Alonso by.

“At this point, I think it’s not going to happen,” Alonso said. “It’s been difficult with Cuba, with the federation, so it’s not going happen, so I have to be mentally ready to be with the Sounders, play my game and forget about the U.S. national team. If the opportunity comes later, I’ll take it, but for now, I just forget about it.

“It’s been two years waiting for FIFA, Cuba, the papers between those two. It’s been hard for me, it’s been frustrating. I’ve been talking with some people here, talking with some people there, nothing happens. I’m very upset. But it is what it is, I have to be ready to play here.”

In so many ways, Alonso is the quintessential American story. He defected from Cuba in 2007 hoping for a better life for him and his family. And since walking out of a Houston Wal-Mart while with the Cuban national team seven years ago, Alonso has established himself as one of the best players in Major League Soccer, and he will make $400,000 this year, allowing him to provide for his wife and soon-to-be three children (Alonso and his wife already have a son and daughter, and child number three is on the way). Two years ago, Alonso also became a U.S. citizen.

Yet despite being talented enough — U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has had conversations with Alonso and Sounders coach Sigi Schmid about trying to get Alonso eligible — Alonso won’t even have a chance to compete for a World Cup spot while in his prime. Sure something could change with his status in the next four years, but Alonso will be 32 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, hardly too old to have a chance at making the team, but old enough that it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll still be at the top of his game.

“Obviously it’s disappointing for Ozzie, because I know Jurgen would have given him a look, he was a player that Jurgen would have been interested in,” Schmid said. “It would have been a great opportunity for Ozzie, but there have been a lot of great players, players like (Welsh midfielder) Ryan Giggs, who have never been able play in a World Cup because their country of allegiance just didn’t get there.”

Yet if Alonso’s life in international soccer limbo has him down, he isn’t showing it. He’s still one of the hardest workers on the team, and still the tenacious defensive midfielder who does the non-glamorous work that has helped the Sounders to the top of the MLS standings.

“It’s unfortunate a guy like that, for whatever reason, gets left on the sideline,” said defender Zach Scott, a teammate of Alonso’s since Seattle joined MLS in 2009. “He definitely deserves a shot to be there. It is unfortunate he doesn’t get that chance, but he never hangs his head, he’s one of the hardest working guys on our team, always 100 percent.”

Alonso isn’t seeking anyone’s sympathy. He made his choice in 2007, and in so many ways is better for it. Still, it’s difficult, with the World Cup around the corner, to not see Alonso left behind and wonder, what if?

A common observation about the current U.S. squad is how, when paired together in the midfield, Kyle Beckerman frees up Michael Bradley to do more in the attack. Beckerman, one of Real Salt Lake’s top players, is deserving of his place on the team, but it’s hard not to wonder if Alonso couldn’t be just as effective, if not more so, in that type of role for the U.S.

Unfortunately we won’t know how Alonso would have fit in on this squad. In fact we may never see him represent his new country. While in the short-term that is good news for the Sounders, it’s still unfortunate that a player so talented is caught in limbo while his best, and perhaps only, chance at playing on the game’s biggest stage passes him by.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” he said. “It (would be) a great opportunity for me, having never played in the World Cup. This was my opportunity to come here, get a chance to be on the roster for the United States. So, it’s going to be tough for me watching the World Cup.

“It’s going to be hard for me.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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