Josh Perez: 'I Want to Prove I Can Play at Serie A Level'
December 07, 2016
FOLLOWING THE 1994 WORLD CUP, United States national team defender Alexi Lalas made groundbreaking news when he signed with Padova in Serie A, widely considered the best league in the world at that time. Lalas became the first modern-era American to play in the storied league, and 17 years would pass before another Yank, Michael Bradley, would see action in the Italian top flight.
And now there is a third.
On November 28, Fiorentina head coach Paulo Sousa summoned Josh Perez to enter the match against Inter Milan at the San Siro. It was quite the professional debut for the La Habra, Calif., native.
“The experience was basically a dream come true,” Perez told American Soccer Now from Italy. “I've never, ever played in such an enormous or historic stadium like that. Then to play against Inter Milan is even better. To play at that Serie A level, it has its ups and downs, but to me, tactically and defensively, it is the hardest league you can play in. The level right now is difficult but at the same time it is what makes you a better player.”
It was welcome news for American fans and yet another sign of a younger generation of U.S. players taking root in Europe. In 2016, Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, and now Perez at Fiorentina have all made their first-team professional debuts in top European leagues.
Beyond Bradley and Lalas, a few others have come close to seeing the field in Serie A. Oguchi Onyewu made a Champions League appearance for AC Milan, and in 2007 U-20 forward Gabriel Ferrari made his pro debut in the Copa Italia for Sampdoria but went as an unused substitute in all of his league match-ups.
Perez, just 18-years-old, is proud to represent the United States in Italy and enjoys being part of the next generations of American in Europe.
“It's basically setting an example,” Perez said. “With Carter-Vickers, Pulisic, myself, and others getting opportunities at big European clubs and it is setting an example for others to see—that no matter [your age], with a little bit of trust from the first-team coach, we teenagers can play at a high level in the Bundesliga, Premier League, Serie A, or wherever it is.”
“Honestly, it's an honor a blessing that I am one of a few Americans to have played in Serie A,” he added. “To actually consistently play in Serie A and consistently do well is something I strive for. I want to show Americans have something that the Europeans can use in the mentality and in the way we are hard workers.
"I want to show people that.”
While Perez is proud to represent American soccer in Italy, he also comes from a proud soccer legacy in the United States where his uncle, Hugo Perez, was one of the key players for the U.S. national team that qualified for the 1990 World Cup—its first appearance in 40 years.
Will Josh Perez follow in his uncle’s footsteps? It’s unclear. In 2015 he was part of the U.S. U-17 World Cup team. So far in 2016 he has spent time with the U.S. U-19 and U.S. U-20 teams, his most recent international appearance coming in September with theU-19s in Serbia.
Since that tournament, however, he has yet to hear from U.S. Soccer regarding any possible call-ups for youth teams or a congratulations on him breaking into the first team at Fiorentina. In October, U.S U-20 head coach Tab Ramos named a strong roster for a tournament in England and Perez was not asked to take part.
Perez, of course, is also eligible to play for El Salvador and Hugo is currently an assistant coach for El Salvador’s national team. At this point, Perez is not ruling out any potential involvement with El Salvador and is simply concentrating on club soccer.
“To be quite honest, I have no contact with either,” Perez said. “They're both up in the air. There is nothing I can really tell you about both. My main focus right now is here at Fiorentina and pursuing my goals here. If the opportunity comes [internationally], I'll take it. As far as now, my mind is on Fiorentina.”
Despite the lack of contact with U.S. Soccer, the odds of a switch to El Salvador seem remote at this time. El Salvador’s national team has been in sharp decline the past decade and Perez’s closest friends are top players from the U.S. U-17 team, including Pulisic and Brandon Vasquez. (“We were brothers and family from day one. The ties are never gone, never,” Perez said of his connection to the U.S.youth program.)
Regardless of international opportunities, Perez is in a great position right now in Italy. Fiorentina is currently in eighth place in Serie A and within striking distance of a Europa League spot. There is plenty of opportunity for him to make a difference during this campaign.
Perez stresses that he is hardly content with making one appearance. Growing up in a soccer family, he was taught to avoid complacency.
“It's exciting and it was definitely unexpected,” Perez said of his transition to the first team. “It was surprising to me. I didn't actually think I was being seen by the first team. I was just getting little hints here and there but I wasn't expecting it. I was just too focused on doing well with the Primavera. But the transition to the first team has been going really well—it's been smooth.
“My next goal is to start games and get to that point where I am a starting XI player. At that point I want to score goals the way I should and the way I need to. I want to prove to people that I can play at this level, Serie A.”
What do you think of this development? Do you see Perez as an eventual contributor to the U.S. senior team? Share your thoughts below.