Earlier this year, Gerson Perez joined the Chicago Fire as assistant coach to Chicago Fire II (MLS Next Pro) head coach Ludovic Taillandier along with assistant Patrick Nyarko. Perez continues serve as a part-time assistant to his father, U.S. Hall of Famer Hugo Perez, with the El Salvador's national team.
Gerson Perez, formerly Academy Director of Silicon Valley Soccer Academy, served as El Salvador's U-20 national team coach in 2021-22 while assisting the first team and builiding up a wide scouting program for Salvador-American talent.
On Monday, El Salvador's full national team, with six USA-raised players, faces the USA in Orlando in Concacaf Nations League play.
SOCCER AMERICA: Describe your role with the Chicago Fire?
GERSON PEREZ: Right now, I'm in more of a development role [than a coaching one] with their second team. The second team uses 6-10 players from the first team, so it's really connected. Training at the same time side-by-side. It's more connected than I've seen in other places and that's good.
And I'm still with El Salvador's men's team. I've been with the senior team for their Nations League games, and took the U-20s to the Concacaf Championship, where unfortunately we lost in the round of 16. But from there I've just been with the senior team.
SA: Describe your strategy for scouting players for your U-20 El Salvador team, which helps create a competitive pool for the senior team? How many are U.S.-based players?
GERSON PEREZ: We have 10 U.S.-based players. It was basically half and half — what I did was, in each position we took two players — one from El Salvador and one from the U.S.
Because I worked in the [U.S. Soccer] Development Academy for years, my main focus was just figuring out what clubs played the style we wanted to play; from there, figuring out how many academy players they had with dual passport possibilities, through parents or other family; and then, kind of work backwards from there.
Once you know what clubs to target, you kind of know which states have the most Salvadorans — they're everywhere, from Minnesota to Miami.
We target those MLS academies, see which ones are doing really well and then try to get out to the events — Generation adidas Cup, Dallas Cup, other tournaments. We did that in the middle of World Cup Qualifying. Which was crazy — trying to qualify for a World Cup and trying to put together the first El Salvador team that had that many U.S.-based players.
SA: That's a lot of research that goes into roster building for one tournament.
GERSON PEREZ: Yeah, and to be frank, we get a lot of Instagram messages, emails, Twitter messages, Facebook messages, random texts saying, 'Hey, my son is El Salvadoran.' You use all of that, right? Just in the MLS academies for the U-20 age group, we found 40 players. The team we sent to the U-17 Concacaf tournament? For them we found 55 players at MLS academies.
And this doesn't include MLS Next [amateur] teams, ECNL — there's just no way we can cover it. So we rely, I don't want to say unfortunately, but for lack of a better word, there's no way we can cover all the ground. You have to trust that the MLS academy did a lot of scouting, brought in the top talent in their region and hopefully that talent is better than what's around.
The younger you go the more you find because MLS has done a lot of work in the last four or five years. U.S. Soccer's first class that they worked on as a younger group was the '04 class that started with the DA. You knew going in that '03 and '04 you might not find a ton. But in the '05, '06 and '07 group there's a lot more. Because then, the MLS started signing Homegrowns, debuting kids at 16 — you're starting to see the effect, but it's only the beginning.
The more people get organized, the more they might be able to do this. I've seen Honduras and Guatemala copy a lot of what we did. They approached me and asked how I did it. And essentially we had the inside scoop of knowing which academies were strong, when they were going to compete, when GA Cup was — that's information a lot of Concacaf nations didn't have.
At GA qualifiers, it was us, Mexico and the U.S. scout. Three nations. If you look at those events, there's everything: Haitians, Jamaicans, Guatemalans, Panamanians. They're starting to make lists and figuring out how to get more players.
Californian Kristian Villalobos of LAFC's academy played for El Salvador at the 2023 Concacaf U-17 Championship.
SA: You want those coaches to be there because it would strengthen the whole region, right?
GERSON PEREZ: Look, it's going to get there. It'll get there. The Dominican Republic is doing a lot of it, you can tell by the team they built in such a short time. They knocked us out — it's not a coincidence they got to the Olympics.
Everyone's starting to catch on.
SA: Why are U.S.-based players more appealing to youth national team coaches from these Concacaf countries?
GERSON PEREZ: It's tricky. It's still to be seen if the '06, '07, or '08 group will be better trained. They're playing GA games against Madrid, Valencia, European teams coming to play. Our '04 and '03 pool didn't live that. U.S. Soccer wasn't there yet. The number one goal for us was to build a larger player pool. Create more competition. Three months [to prepare] isn't enough — I left a lot of good players out because I couldn't get their passports in time, or didn't have time to see them.
I think if you start at U-15 by the team you get to U-20 you would create a really strong player pool.
The players in El Salvador and Central America, I still think, have an extra hunger, that maybe our U.S. player isn't necessarily used to having to fight so much for something. It's different when your mom and dad have two jobs and you're trying to survive and you need to feed your siblings. That's a different reality that doesn't happen as much in the U.S. In that aspect, any country from Central America will have a huge advantage.
The advantage the U.S. guys have? Nutrition, sports performance aspect of where they compete, how they're treated and how they develop concepts and train every day. It's different. My idea was to have a player from each position so that the American-Salvadoran could learn about his roots and the native Salvadoran could learn things like how to take care of your body, nutrition, how to be a pro five, six and seven days a week. That's the balance we found.
Gerson Perez was born in 1986 in San Diego, where his father Hugo played for San Diego Sockers, two years after Hugo played for the USA in Olympic Games. Gerson grew up going to many of his dad's practices around the world, including in Mission Viejo (ahead of the 1994 World Cup), France, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and El Salvador.
SA: From a purely technical and skill standpoint, how do you compare the two pools of players?
GERSON PEREZ: It just depends on the player. You'll find attacking players in El Salvador might have more 1v1 ability. A little more savvy maybe. But the fields aren't good there, so your center backs aren't going to be able to build and your center midfielders won't be turning in between lines as much. They're probably on a bouncy, slow field. They might develop something different — more 50/50 wins, more aerial duels. In the U.S., all the center backs want to build. Every MLS academy is working on players in between lines, etc.
Maybe you'll find that the American-Salvadoran center back is able to build a lot better.
SA: What are your thoughts on the U.S. U-20 team?
GERSON PEREZ: They've dominated Concacaf and beat the Dominican Republic 6-0, which was playing its fourth game and the U.S. playing its seventh of the tournament. And still, 6-0. Mikey [Varas] has done a really good job of putting that group together. The program has done a good job of being able to see a lot of players. They have the resources to have a lot of camps and games. Those are the differences where resources are of value.
You hear people say, 'Oh, they're only bringing MLS guys.' It's just hard — where do you go? You kind of have to trust every club and every state and every city to do their best job to bring in the best players and then pick from those. But are they going to miss players? Probably.
You're only picking 22, maybe, out of the whole country. What the U.S. has built, though, is fantastic. If you can have camps for 12 months and ID so many players, you already have an advantage over us in El Salvador, where we have qualifiers in June and you start in April. I'm one of the coaches who got maybe the most time in the history of the program because I got to go to the Dallas Cup for a week. That's considered a lot of time. If you compare it to the U.S. and Mexico, two years of preparing is a huge difference. It's how you build good player pools.
SA: Could you speak to the state of youth soccer in El Salvador?
GERSON PEREZ: Look. Number one, there's no grassroots soccer. Nobody has that right now. There are teams that compete locally, maybe in the region. But there isn't anything set. From there you have a reserve team, with players from 15-23. There are 12 pro teams in El Salvador then you have second division, third division and fourth division. You'll find a lot of youth playing there. Again, if you have a two-year process, you can see all these guys.
But there isn't an infrastructure. There isn't a curriculum, game models, so what you develop can vary. Really technical players in one region, maybe good defenders in another. Maybe it's the fields they grew up on. All of that are details. To summarize, we need infrastructure. We're fighting hard and pushing over there to create one — to have at least a 14, 16, 18 type thing. Trying to get those youth kids exposed to a little bit more competition — taking them to some events. Maybe the government can help in some ways, it's much needed.
If you talk about the 2026 World Cup, we're really behind. The reality is that we haven't done much to say, 'We need to be in the World Cup.'
SA: What are your thoughts on MLS and how it's impacted the youth soccer landscape?
GERSON PEREZ: What U.S. Soccer did was important, to just try and organize everybody, provide coaching education, I think that helped. MLS kind of came in and saved the day during Covid and kind of brought all of the clubs together. Along with a lot of club directors that were non-MLS. I think Fred Lipka [the director of technical development at MLS] did a great job organizing it.
Having good players all playing in single events or knowing where they're going to be helps the U.S., helps El Salvador, helps everybody know that there's going to be a decent level out on the field on the weekend.
But aside from that, I've been a little disconnected so I don't know how it transpired. What I've seen from the outside, it's been good to see them continue to work together, play against each other [MLS clubs vs. amateur youth clubs]. That's important.
You'll find not only good players, but also good coaches at non-MLS clubs. A bit of a barometer for me is, if you're non-MLS and your team is competing against an MLS team very well, you're doing something really good.