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Jul 31, 2006

Galindo is the new kid in town

The last two months have been difficult for Maykel Galindo. On one hand, he's the MLS-destined star striker of the defending USL champions, the Seattle Sounders, making a comfortable living in a new city. But on the other hand, he's a Cuban refugee far from his friends and family and unable to work, unable to play the game he loves.

"I am going through very challenging times because my family is not here and with the injury ... I am here by myself," Galindo said through a translator. "I am not playing soccer, and that is the reason I came to America."

Galindo, who daringly defected to the United States from Cuba last July, intended to use this season to work on his game in preparation for a move to the MLS. A slashing, technical striker who starred for the Cuban national team before his defection, Galindo was linked to the Colorado Rapids and the Columbus Crew this past offseason. It was the talismanic Galindo who scored Seattle's only goal in last season's USL title game, which the Sounders went on to win in penalties.

Galindo's future is bright, but a dreadful injury suffered in this year's preseason has dulled that glow temporarily.

Galindo went down May 7, when he was injured in a horrific collision with former Sounder and current Chivas USA goalkeeper Preston Burpo. Chasing down a 50-50 ball, Burpo went airborne, and his knee impacted Galindo's face with an audible thud. Burpo received a yellow card; Galindo crumpled to the Qwest Field turf.

He still bears the scars from this injury: a dark line running horizontally across his nose where the doctors made sure his airways were clear. Running up his left cheek is another 2-inch scar -- surgeons implanted titanium plates to assist in the healing of his fractured orbital bone.

Despite his hardships, Galindo's positive outlook shines through.

"The events of this last year have made me a better person and made me love America," Galindo said.

Perhaps it was his striker's instinct that led Galindo away from his homeland and into Seattle in the first place. He was a member of the Cuban national team, which arrived in town July 5, 2005, for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. After the game against Costa Rica on July 9, when he scored Cuba's only goal in a 3-1 loss, he found himself alone in the team hotel. The otherwise omnipresent team chaperones were nowhere in sight. Galindo looked left and right and saw space.

At that moment, Galindo made the snap decision to leave his team and try to defect.

Without letting anyone know of his intentions, not even his family in Cuba, he made a run for it. He pressed a button for a random floor of the hotel, made his way out of the hotel through the parking garage and jumped onto a Metro bus outside the hotel.

Frantically trying to communicate in Spanish, he used the driver's cell phone to dial the only local phone number he had -- to one of the team's Seattle-based liaisons, a high school Spanish teacher named Alex Zahajko. Zahajko picked Galindo up and, not long after, helped him contact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Galindo then announced his intention to defect.

Zahajko took Galindo, who had no place to go, into his home. Soon after, the Seattle Sounders gave him a call.

"One of my buddies gave me a call right after and asked, 'Hey, are you interested in this Cuban defector?'" Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. "We had seen him on the news -- it was a pretty natural thing for us to think about."

Now that Galindo is here, it's his intention to stay in America permanently. In November, the United States granted him political asylum. After he obtains his green card, Galindo intends to begin the path to citizenship -- and the MLS.

"We will not have Maykel for too long," Schmetzer said. "Coaches in the MLS have already contacted me and the organization about Maykel. Judging from the talent I see in MLS, I feel very confident that he is able to play at that level."

Galindo says it was rough in the beginning -- adjusting to life in a completely foreign culture with no friends and cut off from his family. But affable Galindo found some familiar friends in Seattle.

"There is a very small but very tight community of Cubans in Seattle," Galindo said. This includes, coincidentally enough, someone he has known since he was a little child. Yuniesky Betancourt, who plays shortstop for the Seattle Mariners, grew up in the same town as Galindo, and they have known each other for years. When Betancourt made the major leagues, he got in contact with Galindo, and the two have been close ever since.

Their friendship, along with the support he has received from the Sounders organization, helped Galindo make the decision to stay with the Sounders for the 2006 season.

"I am really thankful to this franchise because this was my first opportunity to play professional soccer in my life," Galindo said.

Schmetzer believes Galindo's character and his loyalty to the team that assisted him in his time of need played a part in the decision to stay.

"He does seem to have a good moral fiber," Schmetzer said. "I think in a lot of European and Latin American players, loyalty to a certain team runs deeper than it does in America, where a player might leave if he can make an extra thousand dollars a month playing elsewhere."

"Also, he didn't have that many friends at that time and he wanted to acclimatize a little bit more," assistant coach Bernardo Ruiz said. "Part of his development as a soccer player was to play one more year with us and then go on to bigger and better things."

For Seattle, Galindo's recent comeback came none too soon -- without him, the defending USL 1st Division champions posted a dismal 5-8-4 record, good for eighth. Up front, he will pair with the league's leading scorer Cam Weaver, who at 6-foot-4 is an ideal target player to complement Galindo's speed and flair.

In Galindo's return, he and Weaver went together like peanut butter and jelly, leading the Sounders to two crucial victories over Portland recently. His assist to Weaver proved to be the game winner in one game, and the next night, he notched the insurance goal in Seattle's 3-1 triumph.

Schmetzer is quick to point out another positive aspect of having Galindo on the field.

"He has the ability to electrify games, but he also boosts the morale of the team. The others understand he is an exceptional player," Schmetzer said. "He's a happy-go-lucky kid; he is so happy to be playing soccer in America as a free man that the positive energy seems to fly out of him. He truly appreciates the opportunity he has been given."

This past Fourth of July also marked Galindo's 365th day in the United States. He spent the evening on the shores of picturesque Lake Union in one of Seattle's hip, upscale bistros. Relaxing with friends, he took a moment to reflect on the past year.

After the sun set over Queen Anne Hill to the east, he looked up to see the reds and blues of the Independence Day fireworks exploding over Gas Works Park above him.

"It was something incredible," Galindo said of the fireworks. "I had never seen something that beautiful in my life."

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at andrewwinner@gmail.com