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Cuban soccer player missing from team in U.S.

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A Cuban soccer player who may be trying to defect in the United States left his team while it was in Tennessee for an Olympic qualifying tournament, local media reported on Wednesday.

U.S. authorities declined comment on the location of Cuban defensive player Yosmel de Armas, who was not with the team when it left a downtown Nashville hotel on Tuesday, according to local television station WZTV Fox-17.

Another Cuban player told WZTV De Armas had left the team.

When De Armas was absent from Monday night's final game in the tournament against Canada, the Cuban coach said the player was sick and had stayed at the hotel. De Armas had played on Saturday night when Cuba lost 4-0 loss to El Salvador.

Metro Nashville Police referred all inquiries to the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security had no comment about the player or his possible defection.

Tournament sponsor CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) would not comment on his whereabouts either.

There is a history of Cuban athletes defecting to pursue a potentially lucrative professional career outside communist-run Cuba. Seven members of Cuba's Olympic soccer team defected in Florida in 2008 after a game against the United States.

"This is another case of a Cuban sportsman trying to get a decent life, to try to take control of his own career," said Omar Lopez, general director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based group that represents Cuban exiles.

"There is a constant flow of defections from the Cuban sports machine," said Lopez, who emigrated from Cuba in 1992.

He said he was not at all surprised that the young man had not surfaced yet. "Most of these guys have family in the U.S. or a friend. So many Cuban players have defected before and they keep contact," he said.

"Through a friend they send a message ‘I plan to defect and I'm going to this event' and probably a family member or friend is there to help them defect." Once the player feels safe, "finally they come to an immigration office."

(Reporting By Tim Ghianni in Nashville; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)

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