The love of a sport can drive someone to do incredible things. For Real Monarchs midfielder Maikel Chang, the love of the game prompted a decision that at 20 years old would dramatically change his life forever.
Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Chang had always longed to become a professional soccer player to not only apply a passion for the game, but to one day possess the ability to provide for his family in Cuba. Within the Caribbean country there is no professional soccer league. Simply amateur leagues where the best of Cuba play against one another in the hopes to one day be called into the Cuban national team.
In 2012, Cuba stood as the only country in the Caribbean that exemplified nearly all forms of political dissent. At the time, the Cuban government forced nationwide political conformity prompting citizens to consider defecting at any cost.
Leaving Cuba was an idea that Chang had always carried and his love for soccer inspired his decision to leave his native country while on an away trip with the Cuban National Team to begin a new life in the United States.
“I travelled to Canada with my team for a game and after speaking with two other players on the team, we knew that this would be our chance to start a new life,” Chang explained through the translation of Monarchs teammate Sebastian Velasquez. “The decision scared me but I’m really happy I decided to leave.”
When the team arrived at its hotel in Toronto, Chang and his two teammates stood looking through the glass doors in the lobby before a team meal, knowing that a new life stood waiting through the threshold. Once the players had finished the meal, they went to their room and each grabbed their belongings. It was then they decided to depart the hotel, leave the team and abandon a country in turmoil.
“When we got to our room, our trainer was at the room next to us so we couldn’t run out,” Chang recalled. “We had to wait for him to leave before we got our bags. We used the fire escapes at the hotel to run out the back door without anyone seeing us. When we got outside, we ran – still in our team’s gear – towards downtown Toronto not knowing where to go.”
Once the trio thought they were far enough from the hotel they decided to find a way to make it to the border of the United States and found a way through an individual who recognized the Cuban team gear they were wearing and asked them if they needed help.
“A man recognized us in our team gear,” Chang explained. “He was kind. He let us use a cell phone to call a friend who lived in Canada. More, he bought us a taxi and rode with us until we knew that we were safe. When we got to our friend’s house, she took us to a hotel to stay until we could get to the border.”
Making it to the border between the United States and Canada, Chang and his teammates crossed into the United States to begin their new lives. Having $430 dollars between the three players, they decided to purchase one-way bus tickets to Jacksonville, Florida for that exact amount of money, leaving the trio with nothing.
For three months Chang and his teammates, Odsinel Cooper and Heviel Cordoves stayed in Florida, sleeping on an air mattress, hoping to one day land a tryout with a professional team to help their professional dreams come true in the United States. That’s when the Charleston Battery invited Chang and his fellow Cuban teammates for a tryout.
The tryout with the Battery went well to commence what would turn into a four-year stint with South Carolina’s USL side where he became a fan favorite along with his two other teammates. During his time with the Battery, Chang featured in 109 matches making 91 starts while scoring 15 goals.
“Now to be at a club like the Monarchs makes me really happy,” Chang said. “I loved my time in Charleston but to be with a team like the Monarchs now makes my decision to leave Cuba even better.”