FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In the circle of players wearing blue jerseys, Nos. 13 and No. 23 pass the ball and blend in, but six months ago they defected from Cuba.
Pedro Faife and Reinier Alcantara just signed with Miami FC -- a minor league soccer team in a country 90 miles and a world away from Cuba.
"The liberty we don't have in Cuba we can have it playing here," Alcantara said. "I'm proud to be here with him."
Miami FC signed Faife and Alcantara last weekend following the former players' defection before a World Cup qualifying game. Though the pair of look-alikes with their shaved heads planned their escapes separately, both ended up on the same team and with the same eventual goal: to play in Major League Soccer.
The "wet foot, dry foot" U.S. policy allows Cubans touching American soil to remain and apply for residency after a year.
The Cuban Soccer Association declined to comment on the athletes, said the group's general secretary Antonio Garces. Faife, 25, ditched his team from a hotel in Washington, D.C., when he said he was going to the bathroom, but drove off with his aunt. Alcantara made a similar escape.
"In Cuba I didn't sleep because I was thinking only of that. That moment," said Faife, who left behind a wife and 3-year-old son. He said part of the "pleasure" in joining this team is because it's where the Cuban community lives. Alcantara, who left behind his parents and siblings, said he feels at home in South Florida.
The team opens its season Saturday against the Cleveland City Stars, but general manager Luiz Muzzi said Faife and Alcantara won't play until they get international clearance from the United States Soccer Federation, which needs paperwork from Cuba. About five other teammates are waiting out the same process. Miami FC is one of 11 teams in the United Soccer League's First Division, the first tier below Major League Soccer in the U.S.
On the field in Lockhart Stadium, Alcantara is usually no more than a couple pairs of shuffling cleats away from Faife. Alcantara said the team has come together quickly and it feels like they've been playing together much longer.
"They're Cuban, they're Hispanics and they're happy people that motivate us a lot," said returning player Diego Serna. "And the reasons we know they left Cuba and all the history motivates us to help them, too."
Faife said dissatisfaction with his country and his coach on Cuba's team made him want to stay in the U.S. He'd flirted with the idea of escape since 2007 when his father's heart and liver grew weak, and he figured he could do more for his family working in the U.S. He reasoned it would be a better life for him.
And, he said, it has been.
"I came here to do my best, whether it was sports or I started other work," Faife said. "Thank God I found this team."
If his Cuban players get more fans in the bleachers, then all for the better, said Coach Crizam Cezar de Oliveira Filho, known as Zinho. He said he expects that to happen, but he signed them because they trained hard and are disciplined players.
"Hopefully they keep playing like they are in practice," Zinho said. "And the aficionados will come."
Fernando Clavijo, director of soccer for Traffic Sports USA, owner of Miami FC, agrees. It's the way they handle a ball and not the diversity they bring to the team that is most important.
"You know what it is? A different flavor," Clavijo said. "They're very disciplined, very hard workers, skillful players."
At practice Thursday, a teammate shouts, "Dale Cuba" or "Go Cuba," as midfielder Faife goes for the ball.
Faife taps it, passes it. This is his new team. His new home.
"The team loves us very much...," Faife said. "Cubans, we have good character."