By Mike Woitalla
One of the greatest players ever to wear the U.S. jersey -- and perhaps the most skillful -- now searches for future national team talent.
Hall of Famer Hugo Perez is a U.S. Soccer Technical Advisor -- charged with identifying young talent and evaluating Development Academy clubs -- and this year beccomes U-15 U.S. boys national team coach after having guided the U-14s.
He knows from his own experience that it’s worthwhile to search far and wide for future stars: He got his break by responding to an announcement in Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion to an open tryout for the Los Angeles Aztecs of the old NASL when he was in his mid-teens.
That led to a 15-year pro career, which included 73 U.S. caps, appearances at the 1984 Olympics and 1994 World Cup. He played a key role in qualifying the USA for the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup.
That it all started as an open tryout is something Perez, who emigrated from El Salvador at age 11, remembers as he assesses the young talent gathered at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., site of 7Up Sueno Alianza National Finals, the crowning event of Alianza's Hispanic player identification program that began with tryouts in 11 cities.
We spoke with Perez about the current state of U.S. Soccer’s youth scouting and player development, and the qualities of good coaching.
SOCCER AMERICA: What is the charge of a U.S. Soccer Technical Advisor?
HUGO PEREZ: To evaluate academies, evaluate coaches, evaluate players -- and pick players for Training Centers, for the national team pool, national team camps. We also run the Training Centers. [U.S. Soccer ran more than 200 Training Centers last year.]
SA: An often heard complaint by non-Development Academy coaches is the claim that U.S. Soccer is excludes non-Academy players ...
HUGO PEREZ: That’s not true. We pick players for the national teams who aren’t in the Development Academy.
SA: Can young talent, particularly from the Latino community, with national team potential still fall through the cracks?
HUGO PEREZ: Yes. The country’s so big. Obviously the step that U.S. Soccer took with the Academy has helped. But there are always going to be players you miss. That’s a reason why I come here to Alianza.
SA: Why is it possible that exceptional players might stay under the radar?
HUGO PEREZ: Sometimes there’s not enough information for them. As you know, the American club system can be difficult to navigate. Some coaches don’t want players to find the other avenues because they don’t want to lose their best players. Some live in areas without Academy clubs.
The advantage of the Academy is those kids are seen 80 to 90 percent of the time each weekend. The ones who are not seen every weekend, we still work with clubs who are not part of the Academy.
Training Centers help us identify the non-Academy talent. And [Technical Advisors] have people around our areas look for talent.
I go to meetings, NorCal for example, to present what U.S. Soccer is doing. What the purpose is. What the goal is. We reach clubs outside the Academy and we want those clubs to send players to the Training Centers. The more we do it, the more we reach players outside the Academy.
SA: What about ODP?
HUGO PEREZ: Yes. ODP, PDP, they have players also. ...
But at the Training Centers we don’t just evaluate players. When a kid comes to a Training Center, we to introduce them to what the national team does. The training, the type of soccer we want to play. We do a lot of stuff.
SA: What advice would you give coaches at the youngest ages?
HUGO PEREZ: One, to give the players confidence. Second, not to put them down when they make a mistake. Third, at those ages you don’t coach, you need to teach. And you need to teach in a positive way and encourage players to be creative. Not to be robots, but to be creative. At the youth level, we need to think about our kids first, and put ourselves second.
SA: What’s an important thing to keep in mind for coaches of players in their mid-teens?
HUGO PEREZ: A lot of things happen at those ages. Culture, peer pressure. When they start high school they start thinking differently. You’re dealing with those things. I think we can help them to maintain a balance.
We always forget that the player not only deals with soccer issues four, five times a week. There’s also the social and the private life. We’re not their parents, but I think we can be mentors. Give them give them counsel. Help them.
Sometimes we forget when we only see them for 90 minutes or two hours at practice that there’s more to it than making sure he hits the right pass.
SA: Players want to know their coaches care ...
HUGO PEREZ: I talk to them individually. “How you doing? ... How are your parents? ... How’s school. ... How do you feel about this? ... What do you guys do in your spare time.” We want to know them as a person
If I see a player not talking much, I ask, “Is everything OK? Can we help you?”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, has coached youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif., and referees NorCal games. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goals with Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)