Redlands Coach Ralph Perez and broadcast partner Joe Tutino. (German Alegria / L.A. Galaxy )
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."
That experience plays well in the radio booth says Joe Tutino, Perez's broadcast partner.
"It's a security blanket that every broadcaster should be able to have. Especially in our league where we don't have fact-checkers and so forth," says Tutino, who is entering his 16th season with the Galaxy. "When he starts talking about the '90 World Cup team and things like that, that has me stop at times and say, 'This guy was at the World Cup in Italy. This guy was part of Olympic teams. This guy was at the very beginning of Major League Soccer.'
"Once in a while I kind of look back and say, 'Yeah, that's credibility.'"
Perez does have a few regrets, though.
He regrets his older brother and mentor Ray, a high school soccer coach in New York, didn't live long enough to share in all his triumphs. Ray died of a heart attack in 1995.
He regrets having been passed over all three times he interviewed for MLS head coaching jobs and both times he interviewed with UCLA. And he regrets he's never been given a chance to be a head coach instead of an assistant — at any level — with the U.S. national team.
Oh, and on this particular morning, as he watches the Galaxy plod through a scrimmage on a back field at the Home Depot Center, he regrets he took his wedding band and MLS championship ring off while he washed his hands in the bathroom of the team offices. Both rings went missing for several hours before eventually being returned.
But that's pretty much it in the regrets department.
"I've had a great run," he says. "It has been a journey that exceeds my dreams. Sometimes you pinch yourself a little bit."