April 28, 2023, marks the 18th birthday of Miguel Perez, who has become one of the most intriguing stories in the early parts of this MLS season. At that age, most are still trying to make decisions over their future – where should they go to college? Should they go to college? What is their career path?
And just a few months ago, these were the questions Perez was asking himself.
But over the past year, opportunities have come his way and he has taken advantage.
Not long ago, he was a soccer player not many were familiar on a national or even a local scale. Now, he is a contributor to a St. Louis City team that is defying all predictions. In March, he made his international debut and scored for the United States U-19 team.
Perez’s rise as a player has been a bit of a rollercoaster. He initially was on a promising path at the famed Scott Gallagher in St. Louis that has produced top American players such as Tim Ream and Josh Sargent. He began there at the age of 5 and was there until he was near his teenage years.
It was there where he also suffered his first setback when he was informed that he was only going to be a “part-time player” at Scott Gallagher. He moved on to JB Marine SC as well as well as playing on Missouri’s Olympic Development Program (ODP) team. But that was also in the era of COVID, and many players of his age lost a year in their development and struggled to play.
“I started at Gallagher when I was like, 4 or 5,” Perez told Soccer America. “I always played up a year when I was younger, and I played on the pre-academy teams back then. When we merged with Illinois and Missouri, they said I was part-time player. ... That was when COVID hit. Then we didn't get to play that season and then I moved over to JP.”
But the demotion at Scott Gallagher and the COVID lost season opened up another opportunity for Perez. At the time, St. Louis City’s sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel was monitoring his games. He then decided to attend his match in Boonville, Missouri, that happened to come against Scott Gallagher.
Perez ended up scoring a hat trick against his former club and that set the ball in motion for Pfannenstiel to bring him into St. Louis City in 2022 for its inaugural MLS Next campaign. That eventually led to his homegrown contract in February.
“We found Miguel Perez playing in an ODP game in Booneville, Missouri, in the middle of nowhere, next to a cornfield,” Pfannenstiel told Soccer America in March. “He went through our trial system. He did well with the U-17s, he worked hard. He worked himself into the under-23s, and MLS Next Pro last year. Hard work pays off. He learned from the first moment he trained with us, he was doing it under our principles and he stuck with it.”
As Perez recalls, the events of that day took him completely by surprise. He wasn’t even aware St. Louis scouts would be there or had been tracking him until that day.
“It was in the middle Missouri,” Perez said. “We were playing a game and I didn't know who was out there. I was only like 14 or 15 years old. My friend told me that Lutz, the St. Louis City guy, was there. I heard that St. Louis had become an MLS team, but I didn't know who he was. I was very surprised by that. ... I'd always wanted to become a professional soccer player when I was young, but I didn't expect it to happen so fast. I was at a young age. It's pretty amazing.”
But Perez is also a perfect example of what has made the success of St. Louis so different from other MLS teams – perfect scouting. Instead of signing superstars, it has brought in players that worked for its system – players like Eduard Löwen or Joao Klauss. It has also enjoyed tremendous return on young American players like Indiana Vassilev and Nicholas Gioacchini, who showed promise in Europe, fell into tough situations, decided to return to the USA but were poor fits with their MLS team until St. Louis came in.
Then there has been aggressive local scouting, and that is where Perez fit into the mix.
“If you asked the kid two years ago: ‘You think you'll become a professional footballer?,’ he would have probably said, 'Not really,’” Pfannenstiel said. “But he proved to everybody what he can do. And he's not the last player you will see from our region move through the program.”
The dream start for St. Louis City has been well covered by the American soccer media. Through nine games, the team has six wins, two losses, and a tie.
As a midfielder, Perez has appeared in six games, missing time for international play, including two starts. But for Perez, the success stems from Coach Bradley Carnell, who has created an environment where trainings are intense and competitive, while the veterans take time to work with younger players, such as Perez.
“Just as Bradley says, we are the new kids on the block,” Perez explained. “And I think we've shown the first few games that we've played good opponents. We've shown that we can compete. And as of right now, we've been going into training and taking everything seriously. We go out to training and compete.”
But also part of the St. Louis City story is the relationship the team has with the community. Perez would know as his ties to the area are deep.
Not only is he a native to the city, his parents were also born, raised, and educated in St. Louis after his grandparents moved there from Mexico.
His mother has worked for years in the foot and ankle department of the Washington University’s Orthopedic Department at the Center for Advanced Medicine. His father is a lieutenant in the St. Louis police department.
Miguel Perez meets on the CityPark sideline with brothers (L-to-R) Louie (21), Tony (25) and Cruz (11).
His older brother, Louis, is the all-time leading scorer for Pattonville High School. It’s the same school Miguel (who goes by “Miggy”) attends as a senior in the mornings before training with St. Louis City. When asked about his inspirations in the sport, he is quick to talk about his three brothers and the competitions they had in their backyard growing up.
St. Louis City has been a revelation since the first game of the season. Tickets are hard to come by and the waiting list for season tickets is long. The environment at their games is electric and is often compared with those of popular European teams.
“Ever since the city knew that we were going to have MLS team, they've been waiting this whole time for our first game,” Perez said. “I mean, Saint Louis has always been a soccer city. They've been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
But perhaps the biggest sign of Perez’s progress came in March when he was named to the United States U-19 national team roster by Coach Marko Mitrovic for a pair of games against Argentina and Racing Club de Avellaneda. The U.S. team ended up winning both games.
Perez started and scored the first goal in the 19th minute of a 2-0 win over Racing Club.
The U.S. U-19 team consists of mostly 2005-born players who will comprise the core of the 2025 U-20 World Cup cycle. The players on that team have been together for years, and Perez had only met one player, fellow St. Louis City product Fritz Volmar, before heading into camp. After a period of adjustment, he fit in well with the team.
“It was very new to me,” Perez said of the U-19 trip. “The style of play, they all knew it and I had to learn it. And I would say for at least two days it was difficult. But they've helped me and treated me as I was part of the team.
“But it was amazing and it was very special. Playing with kids my own age, it was different. But going there, I could show and express myself how I am as a player - scoring a goal, it was awesome.”
Earlier this school year, Perez was simply hoping to use his soccer skills to find a place to play in college. And while that can be a great experience, fate has given him a different route. In the months and years ahead, he will be looking to continue to bolster his hometown club’s unexpected playoff run while also looking to take root with the U.S. national team program, which is often seen as the biggest spotlight for top young players.
Not a bad turn of events for someone just turning 18.