As the Sockers left Kansas City’s Kemper Arena late Sunday afternoon, several players were wearing their team polo shirts.
But Hugo Perez was wearing a USA sweat suit, which told where his soccer priorities were.
Because when the Sockers begin Major Indoor Soccer League semifinal play Sunday at the Sports Arena against an undetermined opponent, Perez may be playing his last game for the Sockers this season.
Perez, 21, could then be a day away from starting outdoor practice with the U.S. national team in preparation for World Cup qualifying play. Perez said he will need 10 days to get ready for the national team’s next game on May 15.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” Perez said. “It’s important for the Sockers to win another championship. The national team is important, too. The World Cup is every four years. This is our big chance to qualify.”
The U.S. has not qualified for the World Cup since 1950. However, it is considered to have a good chance at qualifying for the 1986 tournament.
The Sockers, meanwhile, also offer Perez a big opportunity. They are striving to win an unprecedented fourth straight indoor championship.
Perez recently said the team could win “with or without” him. But Monday, he said “every player is important to the team.”
In a three-game quarterfinal sweep of Kansas City, Perez was indeed important. He had four goals and one assist in the series, and he was the only Socker to score a goal in every game.
“I’m not going to say I’m playing great now,” Perez said. “I’ve been lucky to be scoring.”
With some luck, Perez may also play for both the Sockers and the national team in May.
“I might be able to work something out when I get to Los Angeles with the national team,” he said. “Maybe I can come from Los Angeles and play home games with the Sockers.”
Three other Sockers have practiced with the U.S. national team--Kevin Crow, Jim Gorsek and Jacques Ladouceur. Branko Segota has practiced with the Canadian national team. However, none of them will be allowed to miss Socker games for World Cup qualifying games. Each will try to play in the qualifying games if it does not conflict with the Sockers.
Why is Perez an exception?
“Hugo has it in his contract,” Ladouceur said. “I don’t have it.”
Perez received the national team provision as a compromise to an earlier contract dispute.
He originally claimed his Socker contract was invalid because he signed while the team was in the North American Soccer League, not the MISL. He was then suspended two months by Owner Bob Bell for missing practice and an exhibition game over the contract disagreement.
Perez subsequently threatened to take the Sockers to federal arbitration. The team compromised by saying Perez would be permitted to play for the U.S. national team if he dropped the arbitration.
“Sitting and waiting was tough,” Perez said. “It’s difficult to say what I have learned. I don’t regret what I did. I was fighting for my right, and the team was fighting for its right. I guess I’m glad I made the decision to come back because I had a decent year.”
In 27 regular-season games, Perez had 23 goals and 14 assists.
But Coach Ron Newman realizes he may well be missing Perez’s production for almost the duration of the playoffs.
“We won’t back off on the agreement with him,” Newman said. “It was so important to him. The national team is important to the other players, too. I’m going to talk with Bob Bell and the United States Soccer Federation to see what we can do. We can’t make any decisions until then.”
Newman was upset with the manner his players were handled by the U.S. team during practice for the 1984 Olympic Games.
According to Newman, three players, including Perez, practiced with the U.S. team the day before a Socker game. Newman said the players were supposed to come home that evening.
But instead, the players were sent to San Jose by the U.S. team on the morning of the Socker game. When Newman located his players, he had them return from San Jose and was furious.
Perez and Newman subsequently had an argument over transportation costs. It ended with Perez kicking Newman in a sensitive spot just below the waist.
They have since settled their difference. However, Newman would like more cooperation from the U.S. team this time concerning Perez.
“I wouldn’t be against him doing some training with them,” Newman said. “He’s well-attuned to the indoor game now. If he practiced outdoors, he could still play for us as long as the national team understands his situation.”
Perez, like other American players, faces an unusual situation. In other countries, teams have been training months for the World Cup.
“In this country, (playing for the national team) is a decision,” Socker Cha Cha Namdar said. “In other countries, it’s automatic. In this country, fans have priority in their home team. In other countries, their priority is the national team.”
Perez also has priority in his national team, which makes him among the American minority in that regard.
The Sockers will play Cleveland or Minnesota in the MISL semifinals. Cleveland won its best-of-five quarterfinal series against Chicago, 3-1. Minnesota will be San Diego’s opponent if it beats Las Vegas in the quarterfinals. Minnesota leads the best-of-five series, 2-1. If Las Vegas wins the series, the Sockers play Cleveland in the semifinals. . . . San Diego’s first two games in the best-of-five semifinals will be at home at 6:05 p.m. on Sunday and 7:35 p.m. on Wednesday, May 8. If Cleveland is the opponent, road games will be Friday, May 10 at 5:05 p.m. and Saturday, May 11 at 5:05 p.m, if necessary. If Minnesota is the opponent, road games will be May 10 at 5:35 p.m. and Sunday, May 12 at 5:35 p.m., if necessary. Should the series go five games, the deciding game would be played in San Diego on Wednesday, May 15 at 7:35 p.m. . . . The Sockers are 22-2 in playoff competition. They have swept seven of eight playoff series, losing their only two games to Baltimore in the 1982-83 MISL finals. . . . Socker players have decided to joke about three items: (a) their low playoff pay, (b) the fact they haven’t had any champagne in the locker room and (c) the fact nobody is offering them any bonuses for the playoffs. “Just tell everybody our champagne has been good,” Jean Willrich said. “Our televisions are nice, but a couple of them are on the blink.” The latter remark was in regard to some MISL owners giving their players televisions for making past playoffs.