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Salvadoran Americans bring World Cup soccer hopes to El Salvador as it faces Canada

Alex Roldan (right), captain of the Salvadoran men's national soccer team, during practice at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Tuesday, where they will play against Canada on Wednesday. The game is part of the Americas regions' CONCACAF qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Juan Carlos for NPR
Alex Roldan (right), captain of the Salvadoran men's national soccer team, during practice at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Tuesday, where they will play against Canada on Wednesday. The game is part of the Americas regions' CONCACAF qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Updated February 2, 2022 at 5:42 PM ET

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — No one is kidding themselves about what a long shot it is for the scrappy soccer team from this tiny Central American country to qualify for the World Cup tournament in Qatar this year. But hey, one can hope.

Wednesday night's game in San Salvador, pitting La Selecta, as the men's national soccer team is known, against Canada is a make-or-break match.

"We are chasing the fourth-place spot," El Salvador's new head coach, Hugo Pérez, tells NPR in an interview at the soccer league's federation headquarters. "We can't afford to lose another game or mathematically we are out."

On Wednesday, there were sudden doubts about whether the game would happen. El Salvador players reportedly staged a short-lived protest over pay and resources — threatening to refuse to play. But later in the day, players and soccer league officials said the game against Canada was still on.

It's an important match for the two squads. The top three teams, out of eight battling in this part of the world for a trip to Qatar, qualify automatically. The fourth-place team must compete later for a wild-card spot.

Salvadorans celebrate a late second goal by their national soccer team playing against Honduras as part of the completion to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. El Salvador beat Honduras with a final score of 2-0.
/ Juan Carlos for NPR
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Juan Carlos for NPR
Salvadorans celebrate a late second goal by their national soccer team playing against Honduras as part of the completion to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. El Salvador beat Honduras with a final score of 2-0.

El Salvador is banking on a new crop of U.S. players, and coaches, as the key to securing a chance on international soccer's top tournament.

The Salvadoran American head coach helped convince players to come

"I was born here ... I wanted to see if we could help and make some change," says Pérez. The 58-year-old moved to the United States when he was a kid, and went on to play on the U.S. 1984 Olympic and 1994 World Cup teams. He moved back to El Salvador to become head coach last spring. His son, also American, is his assistant coach.

Pérez has convinced more than a dozen American players to join him as well. All were either born in El Salvador but left as small children, or have at least one Salvadoran parent.

Hugo Pérez, the head coach for the El Salvador men's national soccer team, is a National Soccer Hall of Famer in the United States and was part of the 1994 World Cup U.S. team.
/ Juan Carlos for NPR
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Juan Carlos for NPR
Hugo Pérez, the head coach for the El Salvador men's national soccer team, is a National Soccer Hall of Famer in the United States and was part of the 1994 World Cup U.S. team.

New team captain Alex Roldan was born in the U.S. and plays for Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders. After not being called up for the U.S. men's national team, he says, he decided to play for El Salvador and get a chance to go to the World Cup.

His mother is from El Salvador and his dad from Guatemala. Both Central American national teams recruited him. "I was going to choose one or the other and one parent was going to be happy and the other disappointed," he says, jokingly. "But no, no, both are proud of me and as far as I've come."

She never thought she'd go back to El Salvador to see her sons play

Proud is an understatement, says Ana Roldan, Alex's mother, in a phone interview from the family's home in Los Angeles. "I'm so proud, it's my country," she says.

The Salvadoran national team practices at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, on Tuesday.
/ Juan Carlos for NPR
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Juan Carlos for NPR
The Salvadoran national team practices at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, on Tuesday.

She left El Salvador in 1982, during the country's civil war. She is now a U.S. citizen. All three of her children grew up playing soccer in Los Angeles and now work in the MLS. The eldest, Cesar, is a trainer for the LA Galaxy. And middle son Cristian, who like Alex plays for the Seattle Sounders, has a spot on the U.S. men's national team.

Alex Roldan was born in the United States and plays for the El Salvador national team as well as being a defender for the U.S. Major League Soccer club Seattle Sounders FC.
/ Juan Carlos for NPR
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Juan Carlos for NPR
Alex Roldan was born in the United States and plays for the El Salvador national team as well as being a defender for the U.S. Major League Soccer club Seattle Sounders FC.

"I never thought I would go back [to El Salvador] and go to the [Cuscatlán] stadium and see my sons play," she says. Both Alex and Cristian Roldan got minutes on the field in last September's matchup between the U.S. and El Salvador, that ended a 0-0 tie.

The Roldan brothers grew up speaking Spanish and frequently visited El Salvador.

He learned the national anthem on YouTube before coming

Another player on the national team, Walmer Martínez, 23, says speaking Spanish fluently helps him too in El Salvador. He got his Salvadoran passport last summer and quickly joined the national team. His mother is Salvadoran. Martínez, just signed with the United Soccer League's Monterey Bay, California team.

"I didn't know the national anthem though before coming here," he says. But he learned it quickly via YouTube, he says, laughing.

Members of the Salvadoran national team, including Walmer Martínez (facing the camera), arrive for practice at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, on Tuesday.
/ Juan Carlos for NPR
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Juan Carlos for NPR
Members of the Salvadoran national team, including Walmer Martínez (facing the camera), arrive for practice at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, on Tuesday.

While it's not a new thing for international athletes to switch national allegiances, especially during the Olympics, accepting players not born and raised here in El Salvador had previously been a tough sell.

Head Coach Pérez should know. Back when he was a rising young soccer star in the U.S., he tried to get El Salvador's national team to take him, but was told no.

What a difference a few decades make. "It used to be more serious about that, but not anymore. Whoever wants you and offers you a better program, you go," he says.

The coach helped U.S. soccer become more diverse

And no one has a better eye for young soccer talent than Pérez, says Mike Woitalla, executive editor at the sports news website Soccer America. Pérez — a U.S. National Soccer Hall of Famer — coached U.S. national youth teams for several years, and Woitalla says he was a big force in integrating soccer in the United States.

"It took a long time for U.S. soccer coaches, who come from a northern European background historically, to respect and pay attention to how much talent there is in the Latino community. Hugo Pérez has been aware of that for his whole life, and now he is doing that for El Salvador," Woitalla says.

Fans in El Salvador are grateful for Pérez's influence and the influx of American talent.

The Salvadoran national team huddles in a circle before practice at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, on Tuesday.
/ Juan Carlos for NPR
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Juan Carlos for NPR
The Salvadoran national team huddles in a circle before practice at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, on Tuesday.

"We need these elite players," says fan Yovani Martínez, watching at a San Salvador sports bar as the U.S. beat El Salvador 1-0 last week. "El Salvador deserves this support ... so we can go far in the future." It's been 40 years since El Salvador qualified for the World Cup.

Pérez says the Salvadoran team has come very far in a short time and he has set his sights beyond this year's World Cup qualifiers. His contract goes through 2025.

Midfielder and Salvadoran team Captain, Alex Roldan, is looking toward the future, too. "Being a smaller country, it is difficult to turn the tables overnight. We are slowly getting to where we want to be," he says. "Soon we'll be chasing down those bigger countries."

The match between El Salvador and Canada — barring any further protests — begins at 9 p.m. EST on Wednesday.


A shorter preview of this story appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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