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Vagabond : Soccer Has Taken Perez on a Journey Around the World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After all these years, Hugo Perez has come to know something about El Salvador. He has learned that even though he has left his native country, it has not left him. The same with his adopted nation, the United States. Even as he repeatedly left, he could not stay away.

When the U.S. national soccer team played the national team of El Salvador this month, it symbolized for Perez a collision of his past and present. It gave Perez, 30, an opportunity to reflect on his career as a soccer vagabond.

It took him from the shadow of Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador to his first job as a 15-year-old semipro player in East Los Angeles earning $100 a game.

It led him to France, Sweden and Saudi Arabia, but always back to the United States and, somehow, always back to El Salvador.

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Perez grew up as other Salvadoran boys did, scheming to free up even more hours of the day to be in the streets and fields playing soccer. Soccer was the entire social framework for Perez and his friends, who learned most of life’s lessons from the game.

That idyllic, soccer-saturated life was halted abruptly when Perez was 12. His father announced that the family was moving to the United States for a better life. Young Hugo could not imagine how a life that did not center on soccer could be better.

Hugo, his parents and one younger brother--another was later born in America--moved temporarily to San Jose, where his father had a construction job. The adjustment was torment for Hugo, whose scant English had been learned from scratchy “Speak English Like a Native” records his father had brought home in El Salvador.

Worse, though, was the lowly status of soccer in the community. Perez was unhappy, homesick and his life had lost the balance that his sport provided.

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That changed when the family moved a year later to Los Angeles. Once again, soccer became the focus of Perez’s life, as he was allowed to train with his father’s semipro team, named El Salvador. Perez flourished in the atmosphere of adults, his natural tendency to show off finding a willing audience.

“The (opposing) players were always trying to get me,” Perez said. “They didn’t like the way I acted. My teammates protected me, but it didn’t matter because I was so small and fast that no one could catch me.”

Thousands gathered in an East L.A. park to watch the weekend games. Perez, young but skillful, became a fan favorite. Soon, spectators were pressing $5 and $10 bills into his hands after matches.

Still, he was not totally happy.

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“I wanted to be a professional, and I thought that meant going back to my country,” he said.

Still not a U.S. citizen, Perez left his family and returned to San Salvador to stay with a cousin. He was there for only two months, though, before returning to Los Angeles. The next year, at 14, he signed a contract with the club El Salvador, even though he was too young to be in the league.

“For me, it was great,” he said. “I didn’t want to play with kids again.”

Perez scored 32 goals in 20 games with the club.

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Some players decided to break from the club and form their own club, Alianza. They lured Perez by offering $100 a game, a car and an apartment. Perez was 15 and growing up at an alarming rate.

“How could they give me a car when I didn’t have a license?” Perez repeated, laughing. “I had been driving since I was 12. I remember my first lesson. We had to go get a pickup truck in El Paso. My mom didn’t drive, so we took the bus to El Paso. I drove the whole way home, sitting on pillows so I could see over the dashboard. I drove 17 hours straight, because I wanted to get home in time to play in a soccer game.”

School was a nuisance for Perez.

“I went only to please my parents,” he said.

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At L.A. High, Perez, who was playing semipro soccer on the weekends, was asked to join the school team. Given his experience and ability, Perez was soon a star. When a rival coach investigated and discovered that Perez was also playing for Alianza, L.A. High had to forfeit its games and Perez was thrown off the team.

In 1979, he was noticed by the L.A. Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. He was offered a place on the Aztecs’ semipro team and earned $350 a game. Halfway through the season, the Aztecs offered him a job at league minimum, $24,000 a year. Perez thought he was worth $35,000 to $40,000. He was just about to turn 17.

Perez’s agent, Michael Hogue, got him a deal with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who were willing to meet Perez’s unique demands: $25,000 in salary, a $25,000 signing bonus and the expenses for his wedding. His wedding to Maria nearly cost Perez his relationship with his mother, who had counseled her son that he was too young for marriage. The first of the couple’s three sons, Hugo Jr., was born when Perez was 18.

The Rowdies were one of the NASL’s best-run teams. At last, Perez had realized his dream of being a professional soccer player. He flourished. Perez didn’t get into many games in his first season, so he would sneak off in the afternoons and play pickup games with African students at the nearby University of South Florida.

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In 1982, his second year at Tampa, El Salvador qualified for the World Cup. Through a cousin on the national team, Perez inquired if he would be allowed to train with the team, for future opportunities. Team officials said no. Perez used the snub to help him decide about an offer made by the Rowdies--they would help him gain U.S. citizenship. Six months later, Perez became an American citizen.

Now available to the flagging U.S. soccer program, Perez was snapped up by the national youth team that qualified for the youth World Cup. As he had been on his high school team, Perez was a man among boys, even though he was the same age. When the U.S. team played a crucial qualifying match in Guatemala, Perez again came to the attention of the Salvadoran soccer public. He was the second-leading scorer in the tournament and this time the criticism in El Salvador was directed at the soccer federation: “How could you let Hugo go?”

But Perez’s professional path was still in the United States. The next year he joined Coach Ron Newman and the San Diego Sockers, earning $65,000.

The NASL folded in 1984, though, and in a decision he now regrets, Perez agreed to stay with the Sockers as an indoor league formed. His salary doubled, but Perez knew that he should be looking to Europe for work.

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Instead, he was looking for the other component of his dream--being able to represent his country. Pursuing that took him back to El Salvador. The U.S. Olympic team played a crucial qualifying match at Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador in 1987. Walking up the tunnel to get to the field, Perez flashed back. As a boy, he had been in the stands on the day the stadium had opened.

“As we were coming up the tunnel, I thought how much I wanted to play for my country,” Perez said. “I thought, ‘I want to be on the other side, in the other tunnel.’ ”

Perez scored two goals that day, leading the U.S. Olympic team to the 1988 Games.

After that, Perez began his sojourn in Europe, first playing for a team in the French second division, then moving to Sweden. There was little reason for him to return to the United States.

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For, much as Perez had felt the snub of the Salvadoran soccer federation, so had he felt the back of the hand of the U.S. federation. He was left off the World Cup team in 1990 and hesitated only a moment before accepting an offer last year from Ittihad Club, which made him the highest-paid player in Saudi Arabia.

For now, at least, Perez is back with the national team as it prepares for next summer’s World Cup. Perez has learned to count on nothing, not even his place on the World Cup team. He says he won’t be upset if he is not selected.

He has also learned to forget about the past, if it hurts him, even when it reappears.

“I think I have proved everything I had to, already,” Perez said. “I don’t hold those feelings anymore.”

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