Check out my profile of Fortuna Soccer Club, created a few years ago by a former US Navy medic to give defected Cuban players the opportunity to make a mark in the lower reaches of the American game…
Fortuna SC was set up three years ago as an amateur football club for defected Cuban players, who had moved stateside and wanted to play football in their new country. They are based in Miami and play their matches at Kendall Soccer Park.
The manager Mario Lara, who also runs the Futbol Cubano website, explains how the club came to be in existence. “A friend of mine and football coach, who defected [from Cuba to the US] in 2008, asked me to put a request out on Facebook using my personal profile and Futbol Cubano page, asking all Cuban players living in Miami to come together to create a team that can play in the Copa Latina; a traditional cup that was played in Miami for many years,” he says. “My friend and another coach trained the team whilst my job was to bring in players and register Fortuna to the Copa Latina but the sponsors decided not to continue with the tournament. The coaches stepped down but the players wanted to keep the team and play in one of Miami’s local leagues. They asked me to coach them – a huge challenge for me given that I’d never coached before – and we were accepted into one of the local leagues.”
Lara and his players made a very good start in the Torneo Nivelacion, organised by South Florida Leagues, as they embarked on their new journey in the American game. They almost qualified for the league playoffs in their first season but narrowly missed out in the cruellest of ways. They needed three points to qualify for the playoffs and in the dying minutes the referee awarded them a penalty. The opposition goalkeeper saved the penalty, though, and Fortuna were counter-attacked on and subsequently eliminated from contention. The second season was more successful as the club won the Division B title and with that came extra money, which was used to buy their own kit. Now they were in Division A with tougher opponents to come. Remarkably, in their first season, Fortuna reached the final where they were defeated by a side comprised of professional players from Colombia and Ecuador. After that they went onto lose in the semi-finals twice in a row. In only a few years, Fortuna have clinched three pieces of silverware: Torneo Nivelacion Division B champions and runner-ups twice. On three occasions they’ve had the leading scorer – Yohan Panfett, Dario Suarez and Frank Lopez – and on one occasion the best goalkeeper award was given to Dariel Cordero.
This makes for impressive reading given the fact many of the players had never represented a team or featured in a tournament prior to joining Fortuna. The goalkeeper Andy Ramos was an exception as he was a member of the Cuban national team at the 2015 Gold Cup. He was one of several players to defect and find their way to Miami, helping Fortuna to progress in the early months of their existence. Cuban players make up 98% of the squad but in the past players from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Puerto Rico have enjoyed spells at Kendall Soccer Park.
The man in the dugout, picking the team and sorting out the tactics, has an interesting background to say the least. Lara is a 45-year-old doctor from Pinar del Rio who coaches football in his spare time. He moved to the US in 1995 and a year later went to Colombia where he met his wife and had his first daughter. In 2001, he returned to the US and got a job as a Radiology Technician before becoming a Corpsman in the US Navy, working with the Marines. In 2012, he was discharged from the military due to injuries he sustained as a Corpsman and it was during his recovery that he created Futbol Cubano, one of the leading websites on Cuban football. He hasn’t been in the coaching game for very long but is clear on the style he wants his players to play: “I love to play attacking football in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. I like to keep possession of the ball and encourage my players not to use the long ball.” As well as being the coach, Lara is also the owner, laundry man, agent and journalist rolled into one. He is very much Mr. Fortuna SC.
Despite being amateur, the club have become somewhat of a talent spotting hotbed for US coaches and scouts who want to pick up young, talented Cuban players for low prices. Although it’s taken some time for Fortuna to win respect within their local community. “Trying to make a connection with US clubs has been very difficult,” explains Lara. “There is a general idea that teams here in Miami discriminate against Cubans and the players aren’t valued just because of their nationality. Even with this, we’ve had interest from some clubs in the US. Charleston Battery were the first team and their head coach Michael Anhaeuser has been very supportive by donating good footballs to us. Colorado Sprint Switchbacks have visited a couple of times to watch us and this year they showed interest in one of our players. He didn’t sign as the pair couldn’t agree on the player’s salary demands. Miami FC in their first year visited us and decided to invite several players to their invitational combine and open try-outs. Five players were kept: Ariel Martinez [still contracted to them], Jorge Luis Corrales [signed with them, later joined Fort Lauderdale Strikers and now at Tulsa Roughnecks], Keyler Garcia [was let go due to injury], Hector Morales and Dario Suarez [featured in pre-season but never signed]. Morales and Suarez played for AFC Ann Arbor in the NPSL last year and Suarez finished MVP and top scorer in the Great Lakes Conference.”
“The Fort Lauderdale Strikers head scout, Bruno Costa [now at Sporting Kansas City in MLS], came to watch us play on multiple occasions and he had his eye on our 17-year-old central defender, Modesto Menez. Costa helped set up a friendly between Fortuna and the Strikers, who played Menez in their backline. From that we built a relationship with the Strikers and four of our players – Menez, Jonathan Moliner, Jarni Prieto and Ulises Serice – joined their U-20 team that last year finished second in the CASA Lauderhill Classic. The last club to have shown an interest is Tulsa Roughnecks, in particular their head coach David Vaudreuil who contacted me because he was very interested in signing Corrales. He came to look at the Fortuna players and was impressed with Brian Rosales and Yendry Torres, so signed them. He also invited Suarez to train with them but he never signed. The young forward Frank Lopez has interested them but he’s married with a little child, so needs more money than what the Roughnecks can pay him right now.”
So what does the future hold for Fortuna, then? “In five years I wish to have Fortuna playing in one of the lower leagues within the US system such as the NPSL,” explains Lara. “That will only be made possible if we can find sponsors, something that is very difficult for a team made up of largely Cuban players. We have got the quality, but we do not have the money and without money we just cannot move up another level.”
“The Cuban players have great potential to shine in any league but need to improve certain details such as discipline and staying away from the daily temptations in Cuba. Cuban players tend to be very relaxed and not take things very seriously, so they need to begin to think as professionals. Football is played with the head, not with the feet. I believe as a player you should follow the directions that the coach gives you, on and off the field. I think if Cuba want to progress in football they should change many things, including the influence that the government have over matters. Players need to play abroad and we need to recall those who have left the country, defected or otherwise. I would like to see affiliations form with clubs outside the country that can bring academies to our shores with well prepared coaches. There’s a lot to do.”
For now, Fortuna SC continue to fly the flag for Cuba in the United States.