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How Miguel Perez became a hometown soccer hero and made history at St. Louis City SC

St. Louis City SC midfielder Miguel Perez (#28), second from left, celebrates a goal by Tomas Ostrak (#7) on Saturday, March 18, 2023, during a matchup against the San Jose Earthquakes at CityPark in Downtown West.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis City SC midfielder Miguel Perez celebrates a goal by Tomas Ostrak, left, on March 18 during a match against the San Jose Earthquakes at CityPark in Downtown West.

At 17, midfielder Miguel Perez is St. Louis City SC’s youngest player. But his youth bellies his experience. Miguel has been playing soccer for 13 years. At age 4, little Miguel scored a penalty kick, his parents recalled. Rather than celebrate, Miguel went back to sucking his thumb, but not for long. “The minute the whistle blew, it was all business,” Miguel’s mother, Jackie, said. “He’d pull that thumb out, go get the ball and score.”

That all-business attitude prepared him for a hectic start to 2023, during which he signed his first professional contract, debuted in Major League Soccer, started his first MLS game, played for the Under-19 United States Men’s National team and scored a goal for his country — all while still enrolled at Pattonville High School.

Miguel starts his day at 7:20 a.m. with English and team sports classes. When his classes are over at 8:45 a.m., he rushes to City’s training facilities in the Downtown West neighborhood. “I train, eat, then I’ll go back home. I’ll take a nap and then do some schoolwork,” Miguel said.

The Perez family

Miguel Perez was born on April 28, 2005, to Jackie and Luis Perez. The pair were both born and raised in the city. But Luis is a second-generation American, the ninth of 10 siblings. Luis’ grandparents immigrated to St. Louis from Michoacán, México, in the 1930s. “I come from a very big family. We're very proud of our culture,” Luis said. “Familia to us was always No. 1.”

Jackie attended St. John’s High School in south St. Louis, while Luis attended St. Mary’s High School a mile away. The two had mutual friends and met at a carnival hosted by St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. They have been married for 22 years.

Luis Perez is a lieutenant in the St. Louis County Police Department’s Jennings precinct with 25 years of service. He’s three years away from retirement. “I don't like sitting in the office for 8 to 10 hours. So I actually get out and engage the community and support my officers. That's what I do,” Luis said.

Jackie is a 17-year veteran in the foot and ankle division in Washington University’s Orthopedic Department at the Center for Advanced Medicine, part of the sprawling medical campus in St. Louis' Central West End neighborhood. “If you have a broken bone or anything, she's the one you need to go see,” Luis said proudly. She routinely puts in 50- to 55-hour workweeks.

Jackie and Luis have four boys. Their eldest son, Tony, is 25 years old and graduated with a degree in criminal justice from Missouri Baptist University in 2020. He’s followed by Louie, 21, who will graduate from Missouri Baptist University in May with a degree in health science.

Then comes Miguel, followed by 11-year-old Cruz. Louie inspired Miguel to play soccer: The older brother holds the record for most goals scored in a single season at Pattonville High School with 34. He also racked up 44 goal contributions in 63 games at Missouri Baptist University.

A photo of a school project Miguel Perez made in 3rd grade that shows him playing soccer and has a printed message: "When I grow up I can see myself being a professional player in the MLS."
Courtesy of the Perez family
A school project Miguel Perez made in 3rd grade foretold his success as a professional soccer player.

Encountering adversity

Miguel and his family lived in the Bevo Mill Neighborhood in south St. Louis for the first five years of his life. This is where his soccer career started. “He was a natural at it. It was like he had been playing for years,” Luis recalled.

The Perez family relocated to Maryland Heights when Miguel was 5. A year later, Miguel joined St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club. Miguel started for the top teams in his age group at Gallagher until age 14, when he encountered a setback.

“Miguel was told by the director at the time that he was only going to be a part-time player,” Luis recalled.

“It was a demotion. They told him he was going to be a bench player, and he wasn't going to be guaranteed any playing time.”

In a separate interview, Miguel recalled how he felt: “It hurt,” he said. Miguel wondered how he would be able to continue in a sport he loved so much with so much less time on the field. “Since I was so young, I felt down because I wasn't old enough to get through that.”

Luis recalled: “I looked at him and I said, ‘Miguel, you're going to be fine. Nobody defines you. Nobody defines what kind of player you are. We know what kind of player you are. You know what kind of special talent you have. Nobody works harder than you.’”

How Miguel Perez became a hometown soccer hero and made history at St. Louis City SC


In the fall of 2020, Miguel moved to a club that believed in him: JB Marine. Miguel reunited with former teammates at Gallagher and played well. In early 2021, Miguel joined Missouri’s Olympic Development team — a program that provides players in Missouri a platform to gain regional and national recognition.

The development team held training sessions in Boonville, which is where City sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel first scouted Miguel. Pfannenstiel monitored Miguel’s progress for over a month and attended the most important match of Miguel’s career at the time — a game against St. Louis Scott Gallagher.

“Miguel scored a hat trick, and we beat them 3-2,” Luis recalled. After Miguel’s brilliant performance against his former club, Pfannenstiel offered him a spot on City's inaugural U-17 academy team.

Miguel’s development skyrocketed due to high-level coaching in City’s academy. “He always liked those hard-nosed coaches that believed in him,” Luis said. “He always performed well under those coaches, and once he started with City, his progression just kept moving really fast.”

Miguel’s journey has been unconventional, but Luis believes destiny led Miguel to City. “The stars have aligned for him. I mean, everything had to be right.”

St. Louis City SC midfielder Miguel Perez (#28) drives the ball up the field on Saturday, March 18, 2023, during a matchup against the San Jose Earthquakes at CityPark in Downtown West.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis City SC midfielder Miguel Perez drives the ball upfield during a March 18 matchup with the San Jose Earthquakes at CityPark.

Professional career

Miguel performed well in the academy’s inaugural season and earned a spot on City2’s inaugural MLS Next Pro roster in January 2022. In short, he became a pro. The Perez family believed Miguel would enroll in college to play soccer, despite a successful season with City2. “We were under the impression that we needed to start seriously looking at maybe some programs for him to go to college. We had to have college as a backup in case this didn’t work out,” Luis said.

Miguel’s college options in early January 2023 included St. Louis University and the University of Maryland. Miguel came onto Maryland’s radar via Taylor Twellman — a St. Louis native and U.S. soccer icon and commentator. “Taylor Twellman called the head coach and said, ‘You need to get a look at this local kid in St. Louis, Miguel Perez,’” Luis recalled. Miguel started to arrange for an official visit to Maryland.

But Miguel’s plans changed a few weeks later when he joined City for MLS preseason in Florida. “I was actually sleeping when coach [John] Hackworth called me. He’s like, ‘You’re going to go to the preseason with the first team,’” Miguel said. “I woke up and said, ‘all right.’ Then I got excited and told my parents.”

“I was a little nervous,” Miguel recalls. “But I was so happy to be there. That has been my dream my whole life, to play professional soccer.”

College is still a possibility for Miguel. Jackie's employment at Wash U ensures that the university will cover her children’s education; Miguel could pursue an online degree through Wash U’s University College.

Even if Miguel — also known as "Miggy" by the team — felt nervous during preseason, his play on the pitch didn’t show it.

“Not nervous at all. Actually, I was waiting for the nerves,” head coach Bradley Carnell said. “I was waiting for the bad touch. I was waiting for something to be like, ‘OK, this is the MLS Miggy.’ And it never happened.”

Miguel shined in preseason, so City rewarded him with a professional contract on Feb. 21. Four days after signing his contract, Miguel played 31 minutes in City's 3-1 victory against Austin FC — making him the first-ever St. Louis native and academy graduate to play for the club in MLS.

Miguel Perez is swarmed with hugs from his brothers Tony, Cruz and Louie.
Courtesy the Perez family
Miguel Perez [right] is swarmed with hugs from his brothers Tony, Cruz and Louie after Miguel’s CityPark debut on March 4 against Charlotte FC.

“I was happy to just be on the roster. I didn’t think I would get in,” Miguel said. His debut also surprised his family. The Perez family could not make the trip to Austin but watched the match as a family in St. Louis. “We looked up at the TV, and there he was. I couldn’t believe it,” Luis recalled.

“I didn’t cry until after the game. I thanked God and I just broke down. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He gets to play the sport that he loves for his job.”

Miguel made his home debut on March 4 against Charlotte FC. CityPark erupted as Miguel came into the match in the 88th minute. “My whole family was there,” Miguel recalled. “People yelling my name, it was amazing.”

Miguel made more history when he started against the Portland Timbers on March 11 at Providence Park. He became the first City homegrown player and St. Louis native to start a match.

“It was an amazing feeling being out there,” Perez reflected after the match. “Being able to start for the new expansion team, I mean, it’s been an amazing feeling, and I couldn’t thank the organization enough.”

Miguel’s progress with City earned him a call-up to represent the U.S. U-19 Men’s National Team in March. Miguel traveled to Argentina and started in the team’s 2-0 victory against Racing Club. Miguel scored a goal and received the Man of the Match award for his stellar play.

Despite his recent success, Miguel Perez stays grounded. “Some players dream a little bit and start getting sidetracked,” Carnell said. “But I think Miggy Perez is not that character. I don’t think he’s the one to dream and start floating around and think he’s arrived.”

“He seems to be a guy with a lot of sensible maturity — like the way he plays.”

The Perez family poses with Miguel [center, top] on the day he left for Argentina to join the United States U-19 Men’s National Team. The poster was made by his cousins.
Courtesy of Perez family
The Perez family poses with Miguel, at the top in the middle, on the day he left for Argentina to join the United States U-19 Men’s National Team. The poster was made by his cousins.

Adapting to a new reality

Miguel is facing fresh challenges off the field as well. “It’s new having a camera in his face. It’s new having a microphone in his face,” his father said. “He’s still a kid. He’s 17.”

Miguel’s youth leads to a degree of discomfort when speaking to the media. He tends to be brief and concise when addressing the press. Miguel wants his play on the field to speak for itself. “I just go out on the field and do what I do. I try not to get cocky. I stay humble, and I just go out on the field and work hard,” he said.

Luis still has a hard time believing his son is a professional soccer player. “What a blessing playing for the home team. I would have never ever imagined Miguel playing for a professional soccer team in St. Louis.”

Julian Trejo, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, is a native of Arkansas and a former goalkeeper for several state championship teams. His work is supported by the River City Journalism Fund.