Hugo Perez in El Salvador coach role after missing out as player
U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame player Hugo Perez, who turned to the USA squad when his native El Salvador passed him up as a player in 1982, could now be taking his coaching career back to his native homeland as the national team coach of La Selecta.
Four years ago, Perez was actually one of two finalists for the position.
"I was ready to do it," Perez said, recalling the process and the multiple interviews for the role. "They chose, at that moment, the coach they thought could best help the team."
This time, Perez is being more proactive about seeking the role of guiding El Salvador's players, following the resignation of Albert Roca, which was tendered after the team exited the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage.
The Spanish coach had complained, among other things, about the infrastructure in El Salvador, saying that the local league, stadiums, fields and the players were inadequate, especially given the dreams of national team supporters to one day participate again in a World Cup.
Perez didn't gloss over El Salvador's problems, knowing some of them first-hand from not only his childhood there but also his time as a professional player.
"I understand the culture and what the country is really about," Perez stated, recalling his days with Club Deportivo FAS. "I think that's an advantage for me. I went there and finished my professional career there."
Antonio "conejo" Pérez, (QDDG) exjugador fundador de FAS, abuelo del mundialista Hugo Pérez. pic.twitter.com/aj7vrPvy6Z- Mágico Gonzalez (@Magico_94) December 22, 2013
In Perez's view, El Salvador's soccer legacy and greatest asset is the people and their love for the sport. His grandfather played professionally there and Perez grew up admiring him and others like Jorge Alberto "El Magico" Gonzalez.
"Soccer is so important to the culture there," said Perez. "They need a leader with the faith in them to do the job well, to say, this is how we're going to do things, someone who has a plan they can follow."
With Johan Cruyff as a mentor, Perez also admires other players turned coaches, mentioning Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli as his coaching models.
For years, Perez worked as a national team scout for the U.S. Soccer Federation, spotting players at camps and recommending them to coaches at different levels, as well as helping improve development options for players.
In 2013, Perez was appointed coach of the U15 Boys USMNT team. He focused less on immediate results and more on pushing his players to reach new levels.
He said: "I worked with the group on how to play more creatively, to show their quality, without fear of making errors, to be willing to be the protagonists in a match.
"I wanted all the players to participate in the tactics of the team, to all feel like their roles were a priority. I didn't want them to think that soccer is only running and defense."
Out of that young team emerged players like Jonathan Gonzalez, a young midfielder who has now signed professionally with Club Monterrey in Mexico. But last year, the USSF ended Perez's tenure as U15 coach.
Questioned as to the specific reasons why his stint ended when it seemed successful, Perez was diplomatic and avoided direct criticism.
"The changes came from above and I had to respect them," he said. "All I could do was the best I could in the time that I had. My time with the team made me very happy, because the team demonstrated a lot and progressed toward future national teams."
Certain styles of play have yet to gain widespread appreciation in an American culture that tends to focus more on the number of wins a coach generates. Some Latino coaches, such as Juan Carlos Osorio, have found new opportunities in Latin countries after stints in the U.S. went sour. Osorio returned to his native Colombia and coached Once Caldas to a league title after resigning from the New York Red Bulls in 2009. He now coaches Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Having experienced both the soccer in the U.S. and in El Salvador, Perez could see a distinct advantage for the sport in the Central American nation.
"Salvadorans live and breathe soccer," Perez observed. "It's seen as an avenue to escape poverty. That's a goal. To leave the country, to travel the world, many work toward that goal. Here, people have different options, apart from soccer. Players here can produce good soccer, but for them, soccer's not so fundamental."
Soccer's importance in El Salvador was part of the reason that the match-fixing scandal in that country cut so deep. It's not just that supporters realized that not even their beloved sport was sacred, it's also that the lifetime bans handed down by FIFA hurt the country that doesn't have the deepest player pool to begin with.
Yet despite the low point El Salvador is passing through at present, Perez is only more motivated to help turn it around.
On social media, some Salvadoran fans are welcoming him with open arms.
@hugoperez_07 We need someone as passionate as you are to be coaching la selecta. I'm with you!- Allen Lopez (@ajlopez213) July 31, 2015
Ultimately, he has to convince the El Salvador Federation (FESFUT that he is the right choice for the post. El Salvador has some positive history involving Salvadoran-Americans, as the current captain of La Selecta, Arturo Alvarez, is an American who developed in the United States, though he was eligible for to play for El Salvador through his parents' heritage.
However, if Perez indeed is granted the coaching opportunity in El Salvador, it would be an interesting twist of redemption. The player who was overlooked for his on-field talents in 1982 could be offered a chance to make a bigger impact on the sidelines.
Well aware that off-stage political negotiations could be what determines the coaching assignment in El Salvador, Perez was content to make public his intent and desire and to then await the final outcome.
"Politics are there in every federation all over the world," he added. "
We can't control it. I'm not looking to control that as coach. I've got to worry about coaching and doing that well. That's my focus.
"I'm just waiting for the call. It's something that means a lot to me, obviously. That's what I'm hoping for now."
Andrea Canales covers both Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter @soccercanales.