Perez was let go as a youth national team coach in 2014 and shortly after as a U.S. Soccer Technical Advisor during Jurgen Klinsmann's reign as U.S. Soccer Technical Director.
Perez's perspectives on the U.S. game are particularly intriguing because of his long history in American soccer.
One of the greatest and perhaps most skillful players to ever wear the U.S. jersey, he was on the field the last time the USA failed to qualify for the World Cup, in a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica in 1985.
But his playmaking and his goals were crucial in qualifying the USA for the 1990 World Cup and the 1988 Olympics. He scored the game-winner against his native El Salvador, no less, during 1990 World Cup qualifying. Perez also played in the 1984 Olympics and 1994 World Cup during his 15-year pro career.
SOCCER AMERICA: What was your reaction to the USA not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup?
HUGO PEREZ: As a fan or a former player and coach?
SA: All of it.
HUGO PEREZ: I remember in 1985 we didn’t qualify for the 1986 World Cup, and I was 21. And all I thought was I wanted to be in the World Cup. It might have hurt more for the guys who hadn’t been to a World Cup, thinking it might be their last chance. Of course, Christian Pulisic obviously has a great future ahead of him.
SA: As far as what it means for American soccer?
HUGO PEREZ: We’ve been qualifying since 1990. When that happens, we're blinded to things because we’re getting results and we’re qualifying for World Cups. In the long run, it comes to haunt you.
In the previous World Cups, I never thought we had gotten to the point where we can do more than just compete. To start dominating certain teams in Concacaf and in World Cups.
I’m not talking about the results, I’m talking about a better soccer for us. Sometimes, unless you hit rock bottom you don’t start thinking about very important things.
SA: Such as?
HUGO PEREZ: We need to start entertaining people. I’m personally tired of watching our players play a conservative, scared type of soccer.
We need to be getting people in the stands applauding because our players’ style of playing is creative -- total football. To be able to dominate with the ball. I still think our country is below those standards.
SA: What did you think about the Concacaf competion – Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras having finished ahead of the USA?
HUGO PEREZ: I saw most of the Concacaf games. The only team with very good players in every position is Mexico. And they do try to play soccer that attracts people to watch soccer that competes not only in Concacaf but against the rest of the world as well.
The rest of the Concacaf teams, they have good players, but I wasn’t too happy with the soccer that most of them played. Costa Rica was better. The others, they play a grinding soccer. A soccer of only results. The USA needs to go beyond that.
Can we do it in this country? Yes, we can. Do we have the players? Yes. We need people who believe in that type of soccer.
SA: In the wake of the failure to qualify, there’s been a renewed critique of age-old problems such as pay-to-pay and casting a wider net over potential talent …
HUGO PEREZ: We need more support, better scouting and better communication with non-Development Academy clubs, with inner-city clubs, with Hispanic clubs. U.S. Soccer can make more scholarship contributions.
Remember, not everybody can go to academies.
SA: Do you believe that despite the massive investment by MLS and U.S. Soccer, we are still missing talent?
HUGO PEREZ: I recently lived in Los Angeles for about a year and a half and I went to places where the Federation scouts don’t go and I saw players who were very good, 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds playing with adults.
They didn’t play in academies because they were too far away or they couldn’t afford to pay.
SA: Do you think that there has been progress thanks to the Development Academy?
HUGO PEREZ: The academy is a good idea, but I think it should be for U-12 to U-16. The 17s and U-19s, they shouldn’t be traveling around the country playing youth soccer. They should be playing in adult leagues. They should be playing against adults.
SA: Playing in local adult leagues would be better?
HUGO PEREZ: Yes. If I’m trying to prepare players to play first-team soccer for an MLS team I’d rather have 17-year-old players play against adults every Sunday than travel to play against other 17-year-olds, even if it’s against other MLS academies.
SA: Jonathan Gonzalez, one of the players you brought into the national team program – he’s an example of a player who has excelled because he played above his age group?
HUGO PEREZ: I found him playing at a very amateur Northern California club [Atletico Santa Rosa] that had nothing to do with the [Development] Academy who I thought could contribute to the U.S. national team.
He made the hard decision to go to Mexico four years ago. There, they had him play with the older age groups. Monterrey is not only best team in Mexico, but has the most expensive players in Mexico, and he’s starting.
If he had stayed in the USA, he would have gone up, but not as quickly.
SA: The players from the youth national teams you coached, Pulisic and Co., are giving us hope for the future of American soccer ...
HUGO PEREZ: I don’t believe that we don’t have good players in this country. I don’t believe it. The ones coming up, we have a lot of good talent.
I had two groups. I think those two groups were the best that I have seen play football in a way that was entertaining. In a way that was fun for them. In way they could express themselves with the talent they had.
It wasn’t because of my coaching only. The staff that I picked to help us also had the same sentiment, the same feeling, the same understanding.
When I had the national team, I was open to every type of player, whether it was Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, African-American.
But there was one thing I told the guys who were helping us throughout the whole country. There were certain things I want to see in the players. The technical ability. Their IQ of soccer. Their creativity. I never chose only big players or fast players.
But at the end it was the players. They were the ones who performed.
SA: In the wake of the World Cup qualifying failure there hasn’t been much talk about the style of soccer we’re playing ...
HUGO PEREZ: We will not play a different style of soccer, a more attractive, creative style of soccer if we don’t believe in it.
SA: Of course, the question I must ask is why you no longer work for U.S. Soccer?
HUGO PEREZ: I know people have been asking that for the last two years. There’s a lot of stuff that that people talk. A lot of stuff people don’t know.
The only thing I can tell you is that when I was there I stood up for certain things that I felt we could have changed. I was very vocal when I saw things that I felt were not good about our vision.
I felt if I didn’t say anything I would be cheating myself and the people who believe in our country. I was never disrespectful to anybody. I never went behind anybody’s back and said, look this guy’s is bad. Give me the job. No, never. No one can accuse of me of that.
SA: Since you left, there are even fewer Latino U.S. Soccer Technical Advisors. I see a good number of Latino coaches at the grassroots level, but at the higher levels, the Latino representation doesn’t even correspond demographically to the general population …
HUGO PEREZ: It hurts me to see that. I think we can contribute more.
I’m not going to say all Latinos are good coaches and can coach at the higher level. But we do have people in this country who have the credentials to be there. They need to be given the opportunity. And there needs to be more coaching education, but make it cheaper.
Whether we’re talking about players or coaches, Latinos or African-Americans, the flavor they bring to football is different, and we can integrate that into the American culture and help make our soccer more successful.
I had players from all different cultures, from different places and different soccer philosophies, and people said you can’t play your style of football with them. But I did it.
They played that way because we just had to give them the idea to do it and why we’re doing it.
What I talked to them about every time: Whatever you do, the most important thing is, when you have the ball, enjoy playing with it and don’t be scared, because we’re not going to play defensive soccer. We’re going to try and dictate the game, but with the ball, and have fun with it.
• Moved from El Salvador to USA at age 11.
• In mid-teens, responded to a notice in Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion about an open tryout for the Los Angeles Aztecs of the old NASL and was signed to a reserve team contract.
• Played three seasons of NASL ball with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and San Diego Sockers before the league folded after 1984 season.
• After six years with the indoor Sockers, played for Red Star in Paris, Sweden’s Orgryte IS, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad and El Salvador’s FAS, with which he won two titles, before retiring after 15-year pro career in 1996.
• Played a key role in qualifying the USA for the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup and appeared in the 1984 Olympics and 1994 World Cup. Earned 74 U.S. caps (1984-94).
• Inducted into U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2008.
• Began serving as U.S. Soccer Technical Advisor in late 2000s and was U-14 and U-15 national team coach in 2012-2014.
• Served as El Salvador assistant coach in 2015.
• Currently coaches at the Silicon Valley Soccer Academy, a U.S. Soccer Development Academy club, and is director of coaching of Juventus Sport Club in Redwood City, California.