Friday, February 17, 2012

Ralph Perez - seen and done it all

When it comes to soccer in the United States, Ralph Perez has 'been there, done that'.

Kevin Baxter writes about the coach who has seen and done just about everything in soccer.

Choose any significant soccer event in Southern California over the last 38 years, and chances are Ralph Perez was there.

The 1984 Olympic Games? He worked as a statistician "just so I could get to the games."

The World Cup a decade later? He was a technical advisor.

Major League Soccer? He was with the league from the start and even helped coach the Galaxy to two MLS Cup wins.

He also founded programs at Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State San Bernardino, ran teams at Cal State Fullerton and Whittier College and might be the only man in history to coach teams in all three divisions of NCAA play, the MLS, the Olympics and the World Cup.

All of that won him a lifetime achievement award last month at the National Soccer Coaches Assn. of America's convention, but Perez cautions against closing the book on him just yet.

"I still don't think I'm done," he says. "I think my best soccer's ahead of me because at 60, as a coach, that's not old. I feel young."

He is showing no signs of slowing. Last fall, the University of Redlands team he now coaches went 20-3-2, giving him three 20-win seasons in six years at the school. In the spring, he is the color commentator for the Galaxy's radio broadcasts, something he has done since shortly after the arrival of David Beckham.

"I am totally living my dream in what I think is the best area to live in if you're a soccer person," Perez says.

It all started with a rejection notice.

A two-sport athlete at Oneonta State in New York, Perez came to Southern California in the early 1970s hoping to land a teaching job — which he did — and a spot with a team in the North American Soccer League — which he did not.

"I really wanted to be a professional player. But to be honest, I wasn't good enough," he says.

So he applied for a coaching position at Whittier College and was hired on the spot — for $83 a month. Given the career path the hiring established, it proved to be an incredible bargain for U.S. soccer.

The highlights came fast and furious, with Perez, Forrest Gump-style, influencing some of the seminal people and events in the sport's recent history. While coaching at Cal State L.A., he recruited Carlos Juarez and Martin Vasquez, who both became coaches in MLS and with the U.S. national program.

By 1989 he was helping coach the U.S. men to a fourth-place finish in the U-20 World Cup — the best performance ever by a U-20 team. A year later came the highlight of his coaching career: He was on the sidelines of Stadio Olimpico in Rome when the U.S., making its first World Cup appearance in four decades, lost an emotional 1-0 game to host Italy.

In MLS, he has been an assistant with the New York-New Jersey Metrostars — now the Red Bulls — where he worked under Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira. The former became coach of Manchester United and Real Madrid; the latter is one of only two men to direct five different national teams in World Cup play. (Bora Milutinovic is the other, and Perez worked with him too.)

As for players, Perez coached 11 of the 12 men to have at least 100 caps with the U.S. national team.

"My children always say, 'Dad, you know everyone,'" Perez says. "I feel, really, that I've seen it all."

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