National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT icon Hugo Perez has made El Salvador the Gold Cup’s best story so far

For those accustomed to the partisan advantages and one-way traffic typical of Mexico matches in the United States, Sunday night brought a cool breeze of change to downtown Dallas.

El Tri’s massive stateside fanbase makes them the largest and loudest presence in most stadiums they visit. But this raucous Cotton Bowl crowd had just as much – if not more – of El Salvador’s blue and white colors as the usual green, white and red (and lately pink-and-black). And they kept coming, too, prompting organizers to open up the 91-year-old landmark’s upper deck as the Gold Cup Group A encounter unfolded.

Then, despite the first-half lead provided by Chaka Rodriguez’s finish, it was El Salvador who adjusted and seized the impetus down the stretch, going toe-to-toe with Concacaf’s meanest giant, passing-and-moving through the Mexico press and peppering shots at Alfredo Talavera’s goal.

“We are feeling better and evidence of that was the second half of the match,” said Salvadoran goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez in Spanish postgame. “Today we were able to control the rhythm of the game. We're very happy with the performance of the whole team. We're couldn’t score a goal, it’s true, but now we’ve moved on to the second phase, and that's very important to us.”

A 1-0 final score represented relief for the favorites, while Los Cuscatlecos can consider themselves unlucky not to snatch the late equalizer that would’ve kept them in first place in the group. As it is, they’ll move onto the quarterfinals to face the winner of Group D in Arizona on Sunday, looking like one of the most interesting sides in the tournament so far.

A decent chunk of El Salvador’s resurgence can be traced back to the United States. The loss to Mexico was the squad’s first competitive defeat under head coach Hugo Perez since he took over in April (6-2-1 overall), as the US men’s national team legend has also steered them into the final “Octagonal” round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying, where they will meet the USMNT on matchday one come Sept. 2.

It’s a dramatic turnaround for a proud soccer nation fallen on hard times before his arrival, and the throngs of “Bichos Unidos” and other Salvadoran supporters in Dallas underline the extent to which the work of Perez, whose family emigrated from El Salvador to the US when he was 11, has inspired the country and its large diaspora.

“I think it’s God's favor; the grace of God has given me something,” said Perez with a quick smile during his postgame press conference when asked by to explain the reversal of fortunes he’s engineered. “I don't know, I'm not an intelligent person. But I've been lucky in the sense that the players that we have right now have bought into the idea of what we want to do – change our attitude, change our style of play, change our determination.”

One of the most skillful USMNT players of his generation, Perez coached the US Under-15 national team from 2012-14, where he identified and/or helped groom a range of young prospects like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Nick Taitague, Jonathan Gonzalez and Sam Vines.

He showed an eye for talent, aggressively competed for the allegiance of Mexican-American players and other dual-nationals and inculcated his teams with a progressive, methodical and possession-centric philosophy. Yet Perez was placed on a sort of gardening leave in 2014, removed from his YNT coaching duties for reasons that neither he nor the U.S. Soccer Federation have ever fully explained.

Those who watched that mystery unfold can detect the same ideas and leadership at work with this El Salvador side, who have been not just tough to beat, but brave and constructive with the ball, steeped in his unassuming mindset.

“You can immediately see the effort that we're all giving,” said midfielder and New York Red Bulls academy product Amando Moreno on Sunday. “Right now we know that we have a lot of work to do to improve. The changes that we're making are being noticed now, but we have a lot to go to improve. We're in a very good path and what we've done up until now is very good. And we will continue to work on the same thing and continue the same way, and hopefully we will improve each game.”

Moreno, currently with USL Championship club New Mexico United, is one of several US dual-nationals Perez has recruited to bolster and diversify his predominantly domestic-based player pool. Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta and the Seattle Sounders' Alex Roldan have become impact contributors, as well as his nephew Josh Perez, once one of the United States’ top youth internationals, currently playing with UD Ibiza in Spain's second division.

It’s not disrespectful to point out the reality that none of the aforementioned have been on the USMNT radar in quite some time, if ever. Yet they and their teammates gave Concacaf’s top dogs all they could handle on Sunday, helping make El Salvador a tough out for anyone they’ll face in the coming days and months.

“We've been suffering for so many years,” said Perez of his Cuscatlecos program, which took part in the 1970 and 1982 World Cups but before this year had reached the final round of Concacaf qualifying just once this century. “We’re so at the bottom right now that the only way is to get up. And the players have managed to start thinking that not only can they do it, because you can think you can do things, but you have to work hard at it. Right now we're going step by step.

“We still have a long way to go, we cannot compare with the other strong national teams in our area. But I think with work, patience, little by little, we're going to compete.”

The commitment and belief Perez has earned from his troops is impressive, and once again leaves admirers of his USYNT work wondering what might have been had he remained in the fold. That old conversation is likely to kick back up again when El Salvador battle the USMNT in September while chasing a Qatar 2022 spot.

And it may just happen even sooner: Should those two sides win their Gold Cup quarterfinals, they’ll face off in the tournament’s semifinals on July 29.