By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jul 24, 2023) US Soccer Players – El Salvador is one of those Concacaf nations looking to reach the next level. For them, that would be emulating the United States teams that starting in the 1990s played at the World Cup. The coach tasked with getting El Salvador to this next level is Hugo Perez, the former USMNT National Team player and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Born in El Salvador, Perez, now 59, moved to this country at age 11 and went on to play for the USMNT 73 times at senior level, including at the 1994 World Cup. After coaching the USMNT U-14s and U-15s, Perez joined El Salvador’s staff in August 2015, becoming head coach in April 2021. At the recent Gold Cup, El Salvador drew 0-0 with Costa Rica and played eventual runners-up Panama to a 2-2 draw.
Despite not getting out of the group at this summer’s Gold Cup, the Salvadorians have improved under Perez. In March, the USMNT defeated El Salvador 1-0 in a Nations League group stage match, with La Selecta putting in a good showing. The upcoming Nations League group stage in September and October will serve as another opportunity to play games that count against the region’s top teams as well as a path to qualifying for Copa America. This is a program building towards 2026 Concacaf World Cup Qualifying that starts next year, with El Salvador looking to qualify for the first time since 1982.
We recently caught up with Perez, where he discussed his playing career, challenges he faces as a coach, and the future of American soccer.
The next World Cup in three years will feature 48 teams and, as a result, more teams from Concacaf will play in the finals. How much of a dress rehearsal was the Gold Cup ahead of 2026 World Cup Qualification?
I think the effort with this group is that we learned it’s not enough to have the ball, you have to defend. We have to establish our defensive game a little bit better because that’s going to play a big part going into qualification next year. We need to get better at that.
As I mentioned, the next World Cup will expand and you won’t have to face the United States, Mexico and Canada since they all qualified automatically as co-hosts. Does that mean El Salvador has an easier road to qualify?
Think about this: Jamaica is good, Haiti is good. I mean Costa Rica will be competitive, and Panama is the best in Central America at the moment. It’s not going to be easy.
You played in the original NASL, indoors in the old MISL, in Europe, in your native El Salvador, but also in Saudi Arabia three decades before players started regularly going there. What was that experience like?
Karim Benzema went to the best club. Like him, Al-Ittihad is the team where I played. I think now there is a little bit more freedom there compared to when I played. When I played there, there wasn’t any bars or discos or movie theaters. It’s a great country. The people are very into their clubs, especially in Jeddah where I played. Al-Ittihad is the most popular team. Everywhere in the country we went we had fans.
How did you end up playing for the United States?
It was when I was 17 and the Federation called my team at the time, which was the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was ahead of qualifying for the 1983 Under-20 World Cup. I didn’t think about it twice. I said yes. I started my career in the United States and I wanted to represent the country. I will always be grateful to US Soccer for having had me as a player and coach.
Do you sometimes find yourself rooting for the USMNT when you watch them?
This country will always be in my heart. The next World Cup will be very important for this team. These players have a World Cup under their belt and they will be at home. It’s a wonderful opportunity to do something. I think soccer has grown in this country. I think they have a chance to do something special at the World Cup in 2026.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of the new book “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.”
More from Clemente Lisi:
- 5 things from the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup
- Preview: USMNT vs Panama and Jamaica vs Mexico in the 2023 Gold Cup semifinals
- Maurice Edu on covering MLS, moving into soccer broadcasting, and the 2022 World Cup
- Performance, depth, and the midfield highlight the USMNT in the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League finals
Photo by Howard Smith – ISIPhotos.com