Perez was the U.S. team's first genuine playmaker
As Hugo Perez sits down at his kitchen table, he looks like a contented man. And why not? He lives in a beautiful two-story house in the sun-splashed Northern California town of Vallejo. He's happily married, has five children, and earns a comfortable living as a full-time scout and technical advisor for the U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy.
Yet if anyone has reason to sit around and ponder life's cruel twists, it's Perez. One of the best U.S. soccer players of his generation, Perez's career is littered with enough near-misses to drive a lesser man insane. He was just coming into his own with the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League when the league went belly-up in 1985. After toiling in indoor soccer for several years, a chance to join up with Johan Cruyff's Ajax side in 1987 was scuttled because he hadn't made enough international appearances to secure a work permit. He was controversially left off the U.S. national team that went to the 1990 World Cup, which in turn prevented him from securing his dream move to Italian side Parma. As a result, his club career was largely played out in obscurity.
Of course, Perez, now 45, enjoyed plenty of successes in his career. He played for the U.S. 73 times, scoring 13 goals. He played in the 1984 Olympics, was named U.S. Soccer's Male Athlete of the Year in 1991, and played in the 1994 World Cup. He was finally enshrined in the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2008. Such accomplishments leave Perez with few, if any, regrets.
"I can't complain, because [the disappointments] are part of life," Perez said. "It would be nice if I had played in the 1990 World Cup, because I was 26, and I had those dreams. I didn't, and I got a second chance in 1994. Just to close my career with that, I think how many players in this world don't get into World Cups, good players."
Yet for someone who was one of the first U.S. playmakers of the modern era, there is a sense that he's the American equivalent of English midfielder Glenn Hoddle, another creative player of the 1980s who never quite got his due while playing.
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"I think Perez really flew under the radar," said former U.S. international Marcelo Balboa, who was Perez's teammate on the 1994 World Cup team. "That was the sad part. You really didn't know much about Hugo back then until you started playing on the national team, and you realized who Hugo was and what he could do."
What he could do was treat the ball like it was the Hope Diamond, something to be treasured and held onto at all costs. That is, until it came time to score.
"You couldn't stop him," said Balboa of Perez. "He could cut you to the right, he could cut you to the left, and then lay a ball 20 yards into space so a forward could run onto it. You look at the history of U.S. soccer, and that was the first playmaker we really had with that much technical ability. He was the first American where you said 'Wow.'"
The irony is that Perez was a jewel who landed in U.S. Soccer's lap by happenstance. Born in Morazan, El Salvador, he first moved with his family to the U.S. in 1972, and, after a brief return to his native country, settled permanently in the States in 1974. It was a move that didn't fill the then-11-year-old Hugo with enthusiasm.
"I didn't want to come," Perez said. "I grew up with soccer, I played in the street when I played, and part of my family -- my grandfather, my cousins -- had played professionally, so it was always my goal to do that. I was afraid coming here that I wasn't going to be able to play, because America at that time was not that big in soccer."
Fortunately for Perez, his family settled in Los Angeles, an area in which the game's roots ran deep. And it didn't take young Hugo long to make a name for himself. By age 14, he was playing semi-professional soccer for a club called, coincidentally, El Salvador. He was making $25 a game, with $5 for each goal.
"That was big money for me," said Perez with a shake of his head.
By age 17, his exploits caught the attention of a scout from the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs, and a reserve team contract was offered.
It left Perez with a choice. The Aztecs trained in the morning, and if he were to follow his dream, he would have to quit school.
"I thought that the sooner I got into pro, the better it would be," Perez said. "Of course I had to think about school, but to play at that level, in that environment, I couldn't pass on it."
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Yet the nature of Perez's one-year contract meant he was free to sign with anyone once it expired, and an agent alerted him to interest from other NASL clubs. The Tampa Bay Rowdies came up with the best offer and 18-year-old Hugo, with wife Maria in tow, made the trek east.
"It was quite an ordeal for [Perez], I think, at that early age, because when you think of the NASL at that time, the rest of the squad were really experienced professionals," said Gordon Jago, then the Rowdies' head coach. "But he did very, very well. We knew almost immediately that unless something went radically wrong, he was going to be a very promising star of soccer at that time."
It was then the Rowdies hit upon on unlikely offer. The league's rules required a minimum number of North Americans to be on the field in a match. If Perez became a U.S. citizen, then that would increase his chances of getting on the field. It would also mean turning his back on his native country.
"I didn't think about it twice," said Perez of his decision to become a U.S. citizen.
The reason for the lack of hesitation was a perceived snub by the El Salvador Football Federation, which declined to look at Perez when the opportunity arose a year earlier. Given that his cousin, Eduardo Valdes, had played internationally for El Salvador, the slight cut deep.
"I took it very personally, because I felt they should have given me a chance to at least be looked at," Perez said. "So when the opportunity came to be a [U.S] citizen, the first thing I thought of was, 'I want to do it because I want to play against my country.'"
Perez proceeded to stick it to Los Cuscatlecos on several occasions. He scored two goals against El Salvador in San Salvador during qualifying for the 1988 Olympics. But the biggest dagger came in a World Cup qualifier in 1989. In a game that had been moved to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, because of crowd trouble in El Salvador's previous home matches, Perez popped up for a scrappy headed goal to secure a 1-0 road win.
It was a tally every bit as big as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that Paul Caligiuri scored against Trinidad & Tobago on the last day of qualifying, one that clinched World Cup qualification. That Perez's grandfather, Antonio, was in attendance made it all the sweeter.
"After I became a citizen, every time I played for the United States, I played like I was born here," Perez said. "But every time you play against your ex-country, it's something special."
Yet none of that was enough to secure a spot on the 1990 World Cup team. Perez had pushed for national team players to be free to make their own shoe sponsorship deals, and one rumor -- one that Perez denies -- implied that this made him persona non grata with the USSF, who had signed a deal with adidas. The official story is that head coach Bob Gansler decided Perez wasn't fit enough after fracturing his fibula in March of 1990 while playing for French club Red Star 93.
It's an episode Perez is somewhat reluctant to get into. Given his current position with the USSF, it's clear that any wounds have long since healed, if any existed at all. That said, he did seek to dispel any questions about his physical condition.
"I was fit," Perez said. "The decision to cut me was Gansler's decision. I never talked to him about why he did it. He has his own reasons, but I was fit."
As if to prove a point, Perez played for a CONCACAF All-Star team in games against Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid at the L.A. Coliseum just weeks before the World Cup was to begin.
Gansler insists he was right to exclude Perez, pointing out that the midfielder's injury woes allowed him to play just one of the Americans' eight qualifying games in the final round.
"I respect the heck out of the man; did then, do now," said Gansler of Perez. "But I didn't feel that he would have been an asset to the team, not being totally healthy. The doctors at that point, our trainer, assured us he was not."
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The U.S. went on to lose all three games in Italy, Gansler was fired, and Bora Milutinovic was hired to take his place. This proved to be a boon for Perez, who as a 14-year-old had caught the eye of the Serb back when the latter was coaching Mexican side Pumas. Milutinovic convinced Perez to return from Europe, where he was playing for Swedish side Orgryte IS, and join the U.S. residency program.
Perez went on to spend two of the next three years with the U.S. national team, sandwiched around a one-year stint with Saudi Arabia club Al-Ittihad. The team played numerous friendlies against various clubs and national teams since as hosts, there was no qualifying campaign to sweat through. Perez also helped lead the U.S. to the 1991 Gold Cup. And despite only seeing the field for 66 minutes of the Americans' 1994 World Cup campaign, Perez feels his time spent with the U.S. team while in residency was the most productive of his career.
"I cherish that a lot, because it was better than anything else in my career, playing at that level, playing against the best players and teams in the world," Perez said.
Perez finished his career playing for Salvadoran club C.D. FAS, helping them to two championships. It was at that time Perez began doing work with a Christian ministry, visiting prison inmates and impoverished people. And when he returned to the U.S., MLS beckoned, but the money offered wasn't enough for Perez, who continued his religious work by becoming principal of the Living Hope Christian School in San Francisco.
The work took him away from the game for five years, but the siren call of soccer proved irresistible. He was an assistant at the University of San Francisco as well as with USL side California Victory before coaching youth teams in nearby Novato. The USSF came calling two years ago, asking Perez to scout for them part-time and help out with the U-20 national team before hiring him to his present position.
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Perez insists his primary job is to convince coaches to stress technical development over results, yet he has other objectives as well. Given his Hispanic background, and the scarcity of Latino players with the full national team, Perez is now in a unique position to help tap into a segment of the population that has long been underrepresented. But for Perez, the onus isn't just on the USSF.
"When you compare the cultures, our Latino people still have trouble, because Dad and Mom work, they have to, so kids are left by themselves sometimes," Perez said. "If they would have some guidance, we would see more of our people, whether it's playing or other careers. I think that is one of the goals that I would like to see more of from our people. I'm not going to say that Latinos aren't there because the national team doesn't want them.
"But it has to be a two-way street. Is U.S. Soccer doing enough? I don't know. I know they are trying. Can we do more? Yes, we can do more. We need more people. We can still do more work, not only for Latinos but African-Americans. We've got to reach those places. And I think we're starting to do that with the Development Academy. Sometimes talent is hidden in certain places. But you need to get there."
Perhaps Perez isn't so content after all.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.