Alan Pulido's journey to MLS: From a kidnapping and winning Liga MX titles to a fresh start in the USA

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- Alan Pulido is wearing a designer watch, a backward baseball cap, his fringe poking out from one side, and a hoodie, despite the afternoon Arizona heat. Seated outside a Mexico-inspired "Taqueria Centro" snack bar in a plush resort during the final days of MLS preseason, the first question of our conversation comes from Pulido, not ESPN.

The soft-spoken striker, who signed this season with Sporting Kansas City as a designated player, wants to know if the story will be published in Mexico.

Over the course of our lengthy conversation, it's easy to see why Pulido, open and often brutally honest, has a complicated relationship with his home country. He is a household name in Mexico, someone who has endured extreme highs and lows and is followed by more than two million on social media (a bigger reach than that of the vast majority of Major League Soccer clubs). He's also patriotic. He emphasizes that he wants to represent his country, family and hometown of Ciudad Victoria through the goals he will score for Sporting KC, and he'd desperately like a shot at returning to the national team, even if he has not spoken to El Tri head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino.

It's just that he has had such a tumultuous career and life in Mexico that the relative tranquility of Kansas City became an attractive proposition.

Pulido hasn't returned to Ciudad Victoria in the state of Tamaulipas -- the U.S. State Department advises citizens not to travel there due to "crime and kidnapping" -- since he himself was kidnapped in May 2016. It's a city the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice named the fourth-most dangerous city in the world last year, with 86.01 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Visiting home after his season in Greece with Olympiakos had ended, Pulido left a party around 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, according to local media outlets, and several trucks were said to have surrounded the athlete before armed men wearing masks took him by force, allowing his then-girlfriend to leave.

While the kidnappers were negotiating a ransom with his family, Pulido was left alone with one guard. The player took his chance, wrestling away the guard's gun and cellphone, which allowed him to communicate his location to authorities after he knocked the guard unconscious, according to the Associated Press. Within minutes, police arrived to rescue Pulido a little more than 24 hours after his capture.

Pulido looked shaken when he faced media after the ordeal, and he has not talked about it in detail since, but he did tell ESPN that "it's difficult to always live in fear," adding that the incident will "always be with me."

Since the kidnapping, when Pulido visits family members, he meets them in Monterrey, his wife's hometown, with his family making the four-hour drive from Ciudad Victoria. "I don't like to talk about those things because they are very delicate, but it teaches you a bad lesson. They are bad memories that I don't want to go through again and don't wish on anyone," he said. "It was a difficult moment in my life."

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"It makes you sad to see it, and it's not just in my city but in all of Mexico," Pulido said of the violence that has affected his country. "The reality is that I never imagined the violence would get to this level, with kids and women [affected]. Honestly, those types of stories embarrass the country."

The kidnapping made international headlines, but in Mexico, Pulido has been a regular feature in the news. In 2017, he crashed his sports car after a night out when he was coming back from injury. There was also the moment in May when pundits criticized him for turning up to preseason medical examinations in a gleaming black Ferrari.

Where possible, Pulido keeps his answers focused on the challenge at Sporting KC, instead of answering for his past. He's motivated heading into the MLS season -- SKC open the season against Vancouver on 2/29, 10.30 p.m. ET, ESPN+ -- by the chance to help his new club's playoff push after a poor 2019. But starting a family in the relative calm of the United States after recently getting married was also an important factor in his decision to play in MLS.

The Pulido family has deep roots in Ciudad Victoria. Alan's father, Armando, played in goal for the city's professional club, Correcaminos, and earned the nickname "Pulpo" Pulido ("The Octopus") for his penalty saves. Alan's mother worked as a teacher and his older brother, Armando, has had a soccer career that has taken him from Tigres UANL and Tijuana to Greece (at the same time as Alan), then back to Mexico for stints at Queretaro and Correcaminos.

"We didn't have many things growing up, but we also didn't lack much," Alan Pulido said. "We lived OK. My parents always worked. I had what I needed -- not too much, not too little. It makes me happy now to have what I have and everything I've done and how I've worked [to get where I am]."

It was through Armando that Alan Pulido started to support his first club, Tigres, lured in by the skills of Argentine attacking midfielder Walter Gaitan. Pulido worked his way to Tigres via the Tamaulipas state team, and after making his Liga MX debut under Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti in 2010, he became a player tipped for a big future. At age 22, Pulido earned a national team call-up in January 2014 and scored a hat-trick on debut against South Korea. He was named part of Mexico's squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, though he didn't get any playing time.

Upon returning from that tournament, Pulido faced a long, drawn-out and bitter legal battle with Tigres as he tried to leave the club and fulfill his dream of playing in Europe.

He believed that his contract was coming to an end and he could move after the World Cup on a free transfer, but Tigres were adamant that a renewal had been signed. Pulido dug in his heels to force a move to Levadiakos in Greece, obtaining a provisional transfer pass from FIFA and claiming that Tigres forged his signature, but in September 2015, the case was decided in Tigres' favor by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"I never thought that they would do that to someone who gave everything for the team," Pulido said. "It is very sad."

He remains unrepentant even though he was excluded from the national team while the dispute made its way through the courts.

"They belittle players [in Mexico], and so I took the decision [to leave]. I think it was right because in the end, I defended my rights," Pulido said. "I played in Greece, in Europe, in the best competitions in the world, the Europa League, the Champions League. Nobody can take that away from me."

"I took the decisions I had to take," he said. "It was time to talk about it, to show that players can't be trampled on by a club, that our word does count and counts a lot and that thanks to us, there is this show called football."

Pulido played his final game for Tigres on April 27, 2014, but he received only a temporary transfer pass from FIFA in time to make his debut for Levadiakos in March 2015. From there, Pulido moved to Olympiakos in the summer of 2015, and he went on to win the Greek league in 2015-16. But with his playing time limited with Olympiakos, Pulido was signed by Chivas in August 2016, in what was reported as one of the most expensive incoming transfer deals in Liga MX history.

Pulido's career was revitalized under Matias Almeyda at Chivas. Together, they won the CONCACAF Champions League title, the Copa MX and a Liga MX trophy, with Pulido netting a golazo in the second leg of the 2017 Clausura final -- against, you guessed it, Tigres. Almeyda, now a head coach in MLS with San Jose -- Pulido and SKC travel to take on the Earthquakes on March 21 -- left a lasting impact on Pulido.

"Matias [Almeyda] is a very different coach than others I've had," Pulido said. "He's a person who is open to having a dialogue with all the players and not just those that are the important ones or those that have been there longest or are the captains. He gives the same special attention to all of them. He creates a really big family."

Pulido comes into MLS in the best goal-scoring form of his career -- he won the Liga MX 2019 Apertura scoring title -- but he's aware that the transition to life under Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes will be a test. It sounds trivial, but Pulido laughs about the hip-hop music played in the locker room being different than what he was used to at Chivas. He grew up in Ciudad Victoria listening to a mix of norteno, banda, reggaeton, huapango and cumbia, and though he likes a bit of everything, he joked that "there's no banda, no Mexican music" at Sporting KC. As an aside, Pulido is probably the only player in MLS history to have a rap tune written about his exploits, though he is at pains to make clear that he didn't commission the song, written by his friend "El Cuatro Divango," that went viral in Mexico.

Of course, it isn't just the music that is different at Sporting KC. On a technical level, MLS clubs tend to water the pitches before games, something that isn't done in Liga MX, and the ball used in MLS this season feels lighter to Pulido than he is used to.

There's also his new living situation. Pulido has chosen to live in the Kansas City suburbs, rather than downtown. He can converse in English on a basic level and has Spanish-speaking teammates to help him if he doesn't understand, but the on-field interaction with his new colleagues was close to nonexistent during preseason games, even if Pulido was happy to press and harry in line with Vermes' playing philosophy. For KC, Pulido will operate as a central striker in a similar way to what he was doing at Chivas but with license to drop back and get on the ball in deeper positions in certain games.

"I have that type of double job," he said. "I can play up top, but I'm also a player who likes to move around, carry the ball, move it forward. In some games, if we are dominating, Peter [Vermes] will likely want me to stay up front to be close to the penalty area, but if in some games it is very tight, I might have the opportunity to drop back to play more with the midfielders and create chances."

Pulido sees similarities in the way Almeyda and Vermes demand that their players maintain high work rates. But as multifaceted as Pulido is in terms of pressing and dropping back, he understands that he was brought to Sporting KC for his goals. One interesting side issue this season could be a friendly rivalry developing among Mexicans -- all of whom have roots at Chivas -- in MLS, as Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Pulido and, possibly, Rodolfo Pizarro seek to top the scoring charts this season.

"Of course, I'd love [to score more goals than Vela, Hernandez and other Mexicans in MLS]," Pulido said. "In the end, we are friends. We've shared a locker room, played together in the national team, but obviously, there is that uncertainty about who will score more goals."

The evening before his interview with ESPN, Pulido came on as a substitute as a largely experimental Sporting KC side fell 2-1 to USL side Phoenix Rising. After the game, around 40 fans, many wearing the red, white and blue of Pulido's former Liga MX club Chivas, hung around in the cooling evening and tested the patience of stadium operations staff by waiting for Pulido to exit.

With the 2020 MLS season about to kick off, Pulido aims to build the same connection with the Children's Mercy Park faithful that he has with those Chivas fans who will be waiting for him after games and outside hotels all over the United States this season.

"Hopefully, I can leave a similar legacy here at Sporting Kansas City," he said. "Hopefully things go really well so that further down the line, [Sporting KC fans] may value me in the same way."