MIAMI -- It's a balmy Thursday night in October at Kendall Soccer Park in the southwest corner of Miami. Spanish is the majority language, as you'd expect in South Florida's soccer community, but nothing else particularly sticks out. It's a regular evening of amateur soccer at a suburban park. Over on a field towards the edge of the complex, former Cuban national team player and coach, Miguel Tito, is addressing a group of players in a deep, baritone voice with an unmistakably Cuban accent.
Meet Fortuna SC, a club that has become a kind of Cuban national team in exile.
With players choosing to leave Cuba -- some prefer not to use the term "defect" given its political connotation -- at a high rate and the country's soccer association not calling in those playing abroad without its permission, the national team is in free-fall. Not many outside the Fortuna SC family and Cuban soccer circles know what happens to players that leave the national team. For example, of what happened to the 12 players that left the Under-20 team back in Bradenton, Florida, in November 2018 at the CONCACAF Championship? As it turns out, six are playing at Kendall Soccer Park for Fortuna SC, which stormed to victory over local rival Westchester in the Nivelacion League that October night; Fortuna SC has even won the league three times.
"I was the last to leave the team," said 20-year-old Geobel Perez, who scored five times and made three assists in that CONCACAF tournament. "Others had left in previous games before the tournament was over, I waited until it finished, I even ate with the team and was there until the last day."
Every player has his own story of how they found their way to a Fortuna SC team made up of former internationals and locals of different ages looking for a springboard to greater things. Their sacrifices are often heart-wrenching, but more soccer players from the island than ever before are choosing to leave Cuban national teams and try to make a living as a pro in the United States or elsewhere.
Over the last year alone, at least 29 -- the precise number is difficult to come by due to the lack of official information -- players have left the Cuban squads from different age groups. The majority of players make it clear that their decision to leave their homeland is more to chase their dream of playing soccer than to start a new life elsewhere. This is where Fortuna SC fits in.
"[Fortuna] helps Cubans that love soccer, keeps them united and preserves their dreams [of going pro] because there are a lot of a very talented players that play in Fortuna," former team member Hector "Chino" Morales, who plays for Miami FC, told ESPN.
A wage of $38 per month paid by the Cuban federation, according to former national team members, doesn't allow the young players in Cuba to help their families in a financial sense. In comparison, midfielder Osvaldo Alonso -- who left Cuba in 2007 and has had a stellar MLS career with the Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United -- made $650,000 last season, according to the MLS Players Association data. Corrales' salary with the Impact last season was close to $71,000. As an amateur club, Fortuna SC doesn't pay its players but with increased communication between players on and off the island, many see leaving Cuba as an economical decision.
"It could be these [departures] keep happening because the player doesn't do it for politics or anything, but to play," opined coach Tito, who has coached at all levels within the Cuban national team, before leaving as a political refugee for the U.S. 15 years ago. "If I was a basketball player, I'd want to play in the NBA at the highest level and I believe that the dream of all these boys is to want to play at the highest level they can. It's not crazy."
The names of those that have passed through Fortuna SC may not resonate like those of MLB stars Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Livan Hernandez or Aroldis Chapman, but Jorge Luis Corrales (Montreal Impact), Arturo Diz Pe (Portland Timbers II), Ariel Martinez (Miami FC), Dario Suarez (Miami FC) and Frank Lopez (San Antonio FC) have all played at different times for Fortuna SC and are now on the professional soccer ladder in the United States.
"For me, Fortuna SC is like a family. It's a family that we have created to achieve our dream," added Jonathan Moliner, a 23-year-old center-back who was training with USL side Reno before injury struck. He returned to Fortuna SC to regain his fitness before giving his professional career another go.
But the path toward signing with a professional club remains long. The Obama administration abandoned the "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy as one of its last acts in 2017, but U.S. law -- via the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act -- allows Cubans a path to citizenship after one year. It's a provision that citizens from other Latin American countries are denied: during that 12-month period, in which the players are often undocumented after their original six-month original visa expires, Fortuna SC allows them to show up, train and play while they count down the days to completing a year in the country, after which they can start the process to gaining permanent residency and potentially signing with a professional club.
Fortuna SC is a mix of players at different stages of this complicated process. The players who left the U-20 squad in 2018, for example, have finished their 12-month period and are working on making their residency legal.
"You want to be in your country, be with your family ... but there's a moment in which you are a hindrance to your family and football in Cuba doesn't earn you money, you are nobody," said Diz Pe over the phone. "So people decide: 'I'm leaving, I'm going to help my family from abroad, I'll have to suffer not seeing them, but I know it's right because my family is going to be ok."
THE SCORE IS 4-0 to the United States after 13 minutes of Cuba's third CONCACAF Nations League game on Oct. 11. Sitting in Fortuna SC founder Mario Lara's living room in a blue-collar Miami suburb, the talk is about Cuba's worst-ever result and whether this game could beat it. Fortuna SC coach Tito and one of the player's fathers chomp on croquetas while watching as the U.S. dominate a game that was over before it really began.
"You will return to being the key to the Gulf and the pearl on the Antilles," reads a plaque on the wall, underneath a wooden outline of the island. The Cuban players have makeshift patches on their shirts, Lara points out, and won't be swapping them after the match ends because they aren't easily replaced. The Cuban side is crumbling during the game but Tito and Lara are unsurprised at how things are shaping up, given the horror year this has been.
Over its last six official games, Cuba has conceded 30 goals and scored zero, losing all six. Conversation in the living room shifts to whether a full-strength Fortuna SC side is better than the Cuban national team. The notion is shot down after a short debate. After all, many former Fortuna players have since moved on from the team or are sometimes too busy working to pay rent or to get their citizenship applications in order.
But the fact that the Cuba vs. Fortuna SC debate doesn't sound like a completely ridiculous suggestion is revealing. The U.S. eventually defeated Cuba 7-0. Throughout the game, Lara's cell phone is a hub of activity with messages from players' families on the island, where the game isn't being shown. Aside from Fortuna SC, Lara has documented the exodus of Cuban players and the state of the Cuban game on his blog "El Nuevo Blog del Futbol Cubano," which is one of the only sources of information for a national team that shuts itself away at official international tournaments and only speaks to media at mandated press conferences. Players also read the blog, which has helped spread the word about Fortuna SC back home in Cuba.
"When I arrived here, somebody gave me an opportunity and I got where I am thanks to that opportunity," reflected Lara, who arrived in the United States in the late 1990s, before living a time working in Colombia as a doctor. "So I can't turn by back on those that come [from Cuba]: it's a way of extending my hand and to help them so that they don't go through as much as me. That's the satisfaction, the satisfaction of being the voice that they can't be. The majority of the information comes from players, players that are in Cuba, family that tell me things and that's how I know quickly what is happening." Lara works now as an X-ray technician, balancing two jobs with his blog, family and Fortuna SC.
Lara, a native of Pinar del Rio, set up Fortuna SC in October 2014 after being encouraged to do so by former national team player Dagoberto "El Tibi" Lara (no relation). It's been a struggle in terms of logistics, with the team often having to scrape together money for equipment, paying inscriptions and the officials.
The conversation flicks back to the state of Cuban soccer. Lara slams the domestic championship, the conditions players endure and the way the federation is run. The fact that stalwarts and leaders of the national team like captain Yasmani Lopez, Daniel Luis and Andy Baquero have left this year is a sign of how bad things are internally, believes Lara. Players also talked about heavy vigilance from coaching staff or "security" (the word players used) during trips to the United States and Canada: some spoke of not being able to leave hotel rooms unless it is to train or to eat and of passports being taken from them upon arrival in those countries to discourage more players from leaving the team.
Lara confirmed that several players were called to train regularly at Inter Miami FC -- David Beckham's high-profile MLS expansion team -- while others are training with Inter on weekends. The fact that Inter Miami CF will also have a USL team, debuting in 2020, to bridge the gap between their MLS side and their eventual academy has renewed hopes of a clear path to a pro career.
The irony is that this should be a golden age for the Leones del Caribe in which they can seriously compete in the CONCACAF region. In 2013, the Under-20s that became the first Cuban side to make a World Cup at that age range, traveling to Turkey with Brian Rosales, Diz Pe, Daniel Luis, Andy Vaquero and Yordan Santa Cruz, none of whom are still in Cuba. The team beat Canada in qualifying. At the 2011 Pan American Games, Cuba managed a tie with Brazil and only lost 1-0 to Argentina.
"It's not that Cuban football is bad. Cuban football isn't bad, you understand?" said Maikel Chang, midfielder for the USL's Real Monarchs and a U.S. citizen. (He'd love to represent his country again but isn't hopeful it'll happen.) "The players aren't bad: the problem is that like in any country if you don't promote a sport then you can't do anything and that's what happens in Cuba: they don't pay enough attention."
Then there is Onel Hernandez at Norwich City, the first Cuban to play in the Premier League. Hernandez left the island as a child with his mother and German stepfather. He has stated he'd like to play for the national team, but the call has not yet come. Mix in the Fortuna SC alumni with others like Chang (Real Monarchs), Alonso (Minnesota United), Corrales (Montreal Impact), Christian Sanchez (Sporting Gijon), Carlos Vazquez (Alcorcon), Carlos Vazquez (Atletico Madrid), Marcel Hernandez (Cartagines) and all the others that aren't being selected and Cuba would have a national team that would be competitive within CONCACAF.
The frustration for those passionate about Cuban soccer isn't that the national team can't surpass Mexico and the United States, but that it is falling behind the likes of Haiti and Curacao and Panama.
It appears that some within Cuban football know what the solution is, even if it makes it difficult in the world's most global sport.
"One of the most important objectives is that the Cuban player goes abroad to gain experience, train, practice, go through things that the football world provides, because football is growing in every moment, every day, not just in terms of tactical order, but in technology and I believe that is the major step we are taking," said former coach Raul Mederos after Cuba's last Gold Cup match in June.
The Cuban federation has gradually opened up. Of the squad that was named for last summer's Gold Cup, eight were based abroad between clubs in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Panama. But all are contracted centrally to Cuba's National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) and aren't able to move without their consent. The processes are slow and frustrating, according to former players, and the potential to move on and craft a career climbing the sport's ladder is minimal. The Cuban soccer association didn't respond to an inquiry to talk about the issues.
Nothing highlights the pushes and pulls of the dilemmas Cuban players go through than with the stories of Luis Paradela and Brian Rosales. Both are friends from the Cuban town of Matanzas, but represent different sides of the coin of Cuban football. Rosales had been promised the chance to play abroad, but it was Paradela who became the first Cuban to play professionally inside the United States when he featured for Reno in USL in August, 2019. The twist is that he did so with the blessing of the Cuban government and is still permitted to play for the national team.
"They all now know that they can go the legal route. They don't have to desert, which is what has really hurt [the Cuban team]," Paradela, 22, told ESPN. Paradela signed on loan for Reno from his parent club Universidad San Carlos in Guatemala. The club was relegated last April and due to the fact foreigners aren't allowed in Guatemala's second division, Paradela had to move on. It was a shock that his next move was to the United States.
"I never thought that it would be possible, but with God's help and with effort things come together and this is a door that is opening not just for me, but for Cuban sport, which is very important," added Paradela.
But while his case appears to offer a ray of light for Cuban players to play abroad, the long-term implications aren't clear. Paradela was only granted a visa that allowed one entry into the United States and his contract remains with the Guatemalan club. Now Reno's season is over, Paradela has left the United States and his club future is uncertain.
And at least six players have left the Cuban national team in the United States or Canada since Paradela signed for Reno in late August, with six others leaving the Under-23 squad during a stop-over in New York in July -- an indication that players still prefer to go at it alone than put their playing careers in the hands of the Cuban federation.
Rosales' story is less like Paradela's path and more like the start of a Hollywood movie. Cuban officials knew Rosales, 24, was planning on leaving the team back in Kansas City in October 2015 during the CONCACAF U-23 Olympic qualifying tournament. But the situation became complicated by four other players having already fled during the tournament -- two of whom would go on to play for Fortuna SC.
Cuban coaching staff were watching Rosales closely and when they got word he had talked to a Mexican friend over the phone, they cajoled him to stay.
"They started to say that there would be a lot of opportunities and that I would be one of the first to leave [to earn a contract abroad with the blessing of the Cuban government]," remembered Rosales, who told them he would. But when the opportunity arose, Rosales kept his nerve, snuck out of his room and made his way downstairs. He had two options in the lobby: take the revolving door, or the normal one. Fearing that the members of the Cuban delegation in the lobby would be able to trap him in the revolving ones and impede his flight, he opted to flee through the one that offered a swifter path to the street.
As Rosales left the hotel, another Cuba coach was outside. "What you doing?" He asked Rosales, with it obvious the defender was set to leave. "Me, what?" replied Rosales, before running to the street where a friend's car was waiting for him, jumping in it and slamming the door shut just before a Cuban official could reach it.
A minor chase ensued and the police came to the house Rosales was staying at with a friend. But with no crime having been committed, he was free.
Rosales had already heard of Fortuna SC before taking steps to leave Cuba and had spoken at length to Lara, but the team's founder reminded him of the difficulties of making it in the United States. Rosales' performances with Fortuna SC and the Cuba U-23s led to a contract offer a contract with Tulsa Roughnecks in the USL, but he couldn't be registered.
The player says the Cuban federation held up the move by delaying the paperwork and demanding training compensation. The episode ended his opportunity and enraged the player. Rosales is now pinning his hopes on Inter Miami CF as a means of escaping his day job in a factory fabricating windows.
"I'll have been working for two years come February, but if God wills it, my dream is to be a professional soccer player."