In 2017, Hugo Perez was a key contributor to the US Men’s National Team. The 22-year-old midfielder was a regular starter on the team that reached the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but a recent move by Perez to a new club left a void in the USMNT midfield. Now, the US will likely have to beat one of the best teams in CONCACAF to qualify for the World Cup, as Perez leads El Salvador against Panama on Tuesday.
Former US Men’s national team star Hugo Perez, a native of El Salvador, is in line to make a big impact for his new Louisiana-based club in CONCACAF Champions League play.
Hugo Perez played for the United States national team, but now he coaches El Salvador, his home country, as they attempt to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982. Getty Images/Camillo Freedman/SOPA Images/LightRocket
The blurry, gloomy film transports the US men’s national team to another era. Hugo Perez scores the game’s lone goal in a 1989 World Cup qualifier against El Salvador, despite his shirt numbers being barely visible.
It proved to be a critical tally, ultimately setting the stage for the “Shot Heard Round the World” — Paul Caligiuri’s goal against Trinidad & Tobago — that clinched qualification for the 1990 World Cup. It was the first such success for the U.S. men in 40 years, and given that Perez was perhaps the first U.S. playmaker of the modern era, the fact that he scored with his head was a rarity indeed.
He remembered that he “thought more with my mind” than he did scoring with it.
– Pulisic will not play in the USMNT qualifier against El Salvador.
When the US begins its World Cup qualifying campaign against El Salvador on Thursday, Perez will play a completely different position. The Cuscatlecos will be managed by the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Famer, who made 73 appearances and scored 13 goals for the United States as a player before going on to serve as a coach and scout for the United States Soccer Federation.
Perez’s decision to coach against the United States rather than for them isn’t as strange as it may seem. He has lived in both nations for a long time, making him one of the first dual-nationals. He was born in Morazan, El Salvador, but migrated to the United States permanently when he was 11 years old. His talent landed him semi-professional contracts with the L.A. Aztecs and the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the former North American Soccer League when he was only 14 years old.
Perez’s career led him to teams in France, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia, as well as El Salvador, but it was a rejection by his home country — as well as NASL roster restrictions prohibiting the use of local players — that prompted him to seek US citizenship and join the US national team. And he was driven by a strong desire to succeed.
He told ESPN, “At that time, in El Salvador, I didn’t have the chance to represent them.” “So when I played against them, my goal was to defeat them. I was hoping to do well against them.”
The USMNT’s attitude in World Cup qualifying, according to Weston McKennie, is to win every game.
Perez scored twice against El Salvador during Olympic qualification for the 1988 Olympics, in addition to his goal in World Cup qualifying. There’s a temptation to believe that Perez will be ripped apart by Thursday. He referred to El Salvador as his “ex-country” in a 2009 ESPN interview. He now refers to it as “my nation,” and maintains that no allegiance will be split.
“I’ll be forever thankful to them for providing me the opportunity to play on the national team and subsequently work for the federation,” he added. “But now I’m back in the place where I was born, in the nation where I grew up playing football, and I’m 150, 200 percent behind our country.” We need to get our program learning correctly once again. That, I believe, is one of the objectives.
“What I did in the United States has no bearing on what I’m doing today in my own nation.”
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Perez’s career has always been tinged by a feeling of “What if?” After all, this is a guy who was on the verge of relocating to Ajax in 1988, only for work visa problems to derail the transfer. Later, he was controversially left off the United States’ World Cup roster in 1990. (though he made the squad in 1994).
Perez’s coaching contributions in the United States are similar. From 2012 to 2014, he was the manager of the United States U-15s, which featured Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams. He was praised at the time for his progressive coaching approach, which prioritized growth above results. He pushed his players to take chances.
“[Perez] was a huge football fan who like to get the ball down and then play out of the back. That was his mannerism “On a recent Zoom conversation, Pulisic told ESPN. “I believe it was beneficial for us to study, and it aided us in our technical development from an early age. It’s just a very excellent way to start for a person like myself, who wasn’t the largest man growing up and was very tiny, and just helping to work on the basics and passing and thinking ahead and constructing out of the back, things like that.”
However, a schism arose between Perez and the USSF, and the two parted ways after two years on the job. Neither side has ever spoken anything about what led to Perez’s resignation in an official capacity. Perez’s insistence on sticking to a particular playing style, according to one source with firsthand knowledge of the issue, strained ties with both U.S. Development Academy teams and U.S. Soccer. Perez remained tight-lipped when questioned about what occurred.
“There were things that [the USSF] did that I didn’t think were right,” he added. “However, if I explain everything to you step by step, nothing will change.” So I decided to simply let it go and focus on the positive aspects of my time with them. After that, the rest is history.
“It did [make me sad]. However, it is a company, and executives make errors and make choices. We are paid to work, but we don’t always have the authority to attempt to do the right thing. But, in the end, those choices are made by the folks above, and we must live with the consequences.”
Perez was a productive playmaker for the United States, scoring against El Salvador in a crucial match to help the team qualify for the 1990 World Cup. Allsport/Shaun Botterill
Perez was a soccer nomad after his time with the United States. He performed some work for Alianza Futbol, which organizes scouting combines for American players in front of professional club scouts. He also worked as a scout for the Mexican Football Federation and as an assistant coach for El Salvador, where he also managed their U-23 squad. Perez was recruited to lead the senior team in April, after the departure of Carlos de los Cobos.
It’s not a task for the faint of heart. Perez inherited a similar predicament with El Salvador as he did with the United States as a player: the Cuscatlecos haven’t qualified for the World Cup since the 1982 cycle.
“Our football has been in difficulty for years, and I came here because I believe our nation has suffered a lot, and our football has suffered a lot,” he added. “Now it’s trying to see if we can resurrect it and do things properly.”
A match-fixing incident inside the national squad in 2013 resulted in 14 players receiving lifelong bans, wreaking havoc on El Salvador’s program. The ripple effects, according to Perez, are still being felt today.
Perez said, “We lost generations of players.” “We have lost our credibility. We lost sponsorship and a lot of other stuff. It was very painful for us.”
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Perez, on the other hand, has swiftly turned the team’s fortunes around in only four months. El Salvador not only made it to the final round of qualifying for the first time since the 2010 cycle, but it also advanced to the Gold Cup quarterfinals, losing 3-2 to defending Asian champions Qatar. He’s also brought in a slew of dual-nationals, including Seattle Sounders defender Alex Roldan (whose brother, Cristian, plays for the US), Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta, and his nephew, Josh Perez, who plays for Miami FC in the USL Championship.
“In El Salvador, he’s creating something unique. I believe he has created a winning culture “Roldan said this at the MLS All-Star Game festivities last week. “I believe there wasn’t really a winning mindset there before, and now we know we have a chance to defeat these major nations like Mexico and the United States.”
Perez has also adopted a style that is more in line with the country’s culture. Previously, the club favored a defend-and-counter style over one that prioritized possession and aggression, as witnessed in the domestic league.
“The typical El Salvadoran player has very excellent technical skill,” Zavaleta remarked. “It’s tough for a team that isn’t especially large, athletic, or strong to choose to [guard and counter]. Instead, Perez wants to be on the offensive, putting pressure on other teams and attempting to retain the ball and enjoy it. We’re going to lose that way if we’re going to lose.”
El Salvador has gone 6-3-2 under Perez and hasn’t lost much. El Salvador has pushed its opponents to the brink in both of their defeats – once against Mexico and again against Qatar – falling by the odd goal on each occasion. Perez’s team hasn’t shied away from taking the initiative.
Perez maintains that there is no secret recipe for El Salvador’s turnaround, but it’s obvious that his charm and tactical approach have struck a chord with the country’s leaders. He’s also emphasized the traditional characteristics of hard work, dedication, and discipline, and it’s obvious that the Cuscatlecos have come a long way thanks to that mix.
“We’re not known for our discipline as a national squad,” he added. “So we try to inculcate it gradually, and it has to do with how we play on the field and how we conduct ourselves off it.”
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Perez isn’t one to get carried away by a single outstanding performance, and he’s sticking to his guns for Thursday’s encounter. El Salvador has five of its first seven Octagonal matches at home, which means it has to get points early to establish itself in a strong position later. Any victory against the United States will be a means to that goal.
In terms of how to enhance the national team program, he’s also taking the long view. The greatest issue for the Salvadoran player pool, according to Perez, is complacency. He wants more players to leave the local league and believes that the Salvadoran federation will support him, particularly since the World Cup will be hosted in North America in 2026.
“It’ll take a long time to get everything set up,” he added. “But I believe you want to keep building this up as long as the players comply — because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones that perform and play.”
Perez kept downplaying the match-up as he spoke about Thursday’s game, but there was a moment when he showed some enthusiasm, his competitive spirit showing through.
“I’m going to have the same emotion or attitude I had when I played against El Salvador when we face the United States,” he added. “The only difference is that I’m not going to participate. I really wish I could. When you’re playing against the greatest, which is now the United States, there’s no better incentive than to win.”
Perez put a dagger in El Salvador’s World Cup dreams 32 years ago. The degree to which he can make apologies will be revealed on Thursday.