The skills that earned Hugo Perez a reputation as one of the best players to every wear a U.S. jersey weren’t honed on a manicured suburban soccer field with matching, pressed uniforms. His was an education that was more organic.
“I grew up playing in El Salvador,” said the 49-year-old Perez, now coach of the U.S. Under-15 Boys’ National Team. “When I was seven, I already was playing with 14-year-olds in the street. My dad helped me a little bit, but most of it I learned on the street, every day.”
His family moved to Los Angeles in 1974 when he was 11. The street was replaced by the Salvation Army’s YMCA-like Red Shield Center and games that cost a quarter in the city’s famed MacArthur Park.
“I grew up quickly,” he said. “Overall, I was ahead of a lot of the kids. My foundation was in El Salvador. When I got here, I played with older kids, and then adults. Even when I was 6 years old, it was a lot of 7-v-7. I didn’t play too much youth soccer.”
The experience not only shaped a career that resulted in 73 appearances between 1984 and 1994 for the United States, including the Olympics and World Cup, but also guides him as he helps direct U.S. Soccer’s youth development.
“We’re asking coaches to play kids up,” he said. “When I first played in an adult league, it took me a couple of months to adjust to deal with the physical part. If you have a player who has the technical ability, who’s dominating his age, it’s useless to keep playing him at that age.
“Our players play two years up, three years up. It helps them grow. It makes them alert, aware.”
Perez’s teammates are unanimous in their praise, saying no one was more aware than him.
“He was one of those guys that, for my type of athlete, would tick you off,” former U.S. MNT captain Rick Davis said. “It came so effortlessly to them, it was natural to them. Just when think you’ve got ’em, they’d slip away. It just adds to your frustration.
“I remember when we would scrimmage, just when you thought he’d control [the ball], he’d one-touch pass it to somebody, like a ghost. All of a sudden it’s not there. Not wanting to be offensive, but you didn’t remember Hugo for his physical attributes. He was not strong, or fast, and you’d think, ‘How can this guy be so difficult to play against?’ It just seemed to come so easily to him, so naturally. It was like poetry.”
Perez’s habit of playing way beyond his age marked the beginning of his professional career, when at 17 he was noticed by the Los Angeles Aztecs and signed to an amateur contract for the 1981 season. A year later, he joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies, making nine appearances as an 18-year-old.
Midway through 1983, he was sent to San Diego, where he would play the final 1½ seasons of the North American Soccer League and then five more with the Sockers indoors.
His time with Tampa Bay also saw his adoption of the United States as his new country. Because of foreign-player limits, getting his U.S. citizenship meant an increased chance of playing.
But, it also was an opportunity to accept the country as his new home, especially since a family member had approached the Salvadoran Football Federation earlier about him playing for the Cuscatlecos as they approached playing in the 1982 FIFA World Cup. The Salvadoran federation rejected his offer.
“At that time, they didn’t want to do it,” Perez remembered. “When that happened, I felt bad. The country where I was born didn’t want me. I wanted them to understand what they lost. I was eager to go there, have them understand what I was and what they missed.”
His new country adopted him quickly, adding him to the U.S. U-20s for qualifying for the 1983 World Championship and the full National Team a year later for the 1984 Olympics. He would help the Americans qualify for the 1988 Olympics and the 1990 FIFA World Cup, scoring key goals against El Salvador in qualifying.
In Olympic qualifying in 1987, he scored twice to lead a 4-2 victory in San Salvador in the next-to-last qualifier and, two years later, had the lone goal in a 1-0 World Cup qualifier that eliminated the Salvadorans and helped send the United States to the world championship for the first time in 40 years.
“It was 200 times satisfying,” Perez said. “It was satisfying to me. Not only did they put me down by not letting me play, but the U.S. opened the door, and I wanted them to understand what they had missed.”
Perez’s presence not only helped improve the United States’ fortunes by qualifying for world championships and winning titles, like the 1991 Gold Cup, but it also gave the Americans a dimension little seen before.
“If you talk about how we as country have evolved, I don’t think anyone’s ever questioned our ability to compete physically,” Davis said. “Technically and tactically, over time, we’ve gotten better. But when a player like Hugo Perez comes along, it gives your team a new dimension we never had before that. We had players like Chico Borja, but if you look at the wall, there aren’t too many pictures, certainly from my day.”
Like Davis, an injury kept Perez off the 1990 FIFA World Cup team. Yet, Perez continued to blaze trails.
Tired of indoor play after the 1989-90 season, he decided to try again outdoors in Europe.
He went to Paris to play for Red Star, then Orgyte IS in Sweden and Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia before returning to the U.S. to join the U.S. National Team residency camp and finally playing in the 1994 FIFA World Cup on U.S. soil.
Christian ministry work led him back to El Salvador and CD FAS, where he played two seasons before eventually retiring from the game in 1996.
“I’m confident there’s a generation of kids out there who never made it to the pro level, who grew up, like various stars in other sports, that had role models,” Davis said. “There are a bunch of people out there that started doing things with a soccer ball after seeing someone like Hugo do it.
“And there was a Hispanic element to it. Maybe because they felt precluded, their perspective was different, or there were way too many roadblocks. They came from the kind of background that coaches were not looking for that kind of player. What Hugo brought to the game was a revelation, and suddenly people realized what we could tap into, that there’s more of him out there.”
The generation Perez inspired started early, beginning with players like Paul Caligiuri, whose goal in the Nov. 19, 1989 World Cup qualifier in Trinidad beat the Soca Warriors and earned the United States a trip to Italy in 1990.
“When guys got hurt, he’d immediately run over, pick ‘em up, encourage them, ‘C’mon, let’s go, you’re all right,’” Caligiuri said. “When the competition was there, he rose to the occasion. Even beyond that, he was inspirational. He was playing pro in 1982. He was someone I looked up to on and off the field.
“I don’t have a player I can compare with Hugo. Like Tab (Ramos), he literally was on a different level.”