CARY, N.C. — Manny Perez had been searching for the right path.
Since he was a child growing up in North Carolina, watching Manchester United and FC Barcelona on TV, he had dreams of playing soccer in Europe, where the sport is the undisputed king.
Playing college ball at N.C. State, it was clear that Perez was talented. He was twice an All-ACC selection, named ACC Freshman of the Year in 2017, started 28 games over two seasons and scored six goals and assisted on nine more as a defender.
Many college soccer players with that type of resume jump for the chance to sign a Generation Adidas contract and enter the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Had Perez chosen to do that, he likely would’ve been a top-10 pick. But twice, he said no to MLS. That was not the road for him to achieve his goal of playing in Europe.
“My first approach was, ‘I just got to get to Europe,’” Perez said. “MLS is a good league and everything, but I just had to get to Europe first. The soccer over there is bigger. Maybe one day I can come back to MLS and play here in America… Since I was a kid, I knew soccer was really big in Europe and I just wanted to get over there. I know there’s a lot of talent there, so I just wanted to get to the place that’s going to develop me best as a player.”
For Perez, typically a right back, the fastest way to get across the pond was sort of through the club in his backyard, that had been grooming him for a jump to the professional level for years.
Earlier this year, Perez signed with the Scottish Premier League giant Celtic FC on a deal for 3 1/2 years. Immediately after inking the deal, he was loaned back home to North Carolina FC, the USL Championship side whose academy system he had come up in.
It’s unclear exactly how long Perez will be with his hometown club. The loan from Celtic is a bit open-ended. It could be all of the 2019 season, but if Perez impresses, the Celtic brass could call him to Glasgow much sooner.
As long as he’s in an NCFC kit, new head coach Dave Sarachan plans to deploy him and get as much as he can out of Perez.
“Manny comes with a really good reputation,” Sarachan said. “He looks very comfortable. He’s got a lot of the attributes that I think can be successful at our level. It’s a matter of watching him as we go along and seeing how he fits in, but he certainly fit in pretty well (in training).”
In 2018, NCFC missed the playoffs with a 13-13-8 record. Former head coach Colin Clarke was dismissed and the club hired Sarachan, who was coming off being the interim boss of the U.S. men’s national team.
Being an NCFC academy product, Perez, 20, carries a bit of pride with him about his hometown club and hopes to help them right the ship this season.
“I want to give as much as I can towards the success of this club,” Perez said. “We’re trying to make it big this year.”
Aside from making him part of its plan for on-field success, NCFC is also going to have a role in prepping Perez before he makes the jump to Celtic. That Perez skipped MLS and signed with the class of the Scottish Premier League after just two college seasons is a big moment for the club’s academy.
Sure, other NCFC academy products have landed professional contracts stateside, but Perez is different. Everyone at the club is rooting for him.
“I think it says a lot,” Sarachan said. “We had a few academy kids in training, and obviously with a guy like Manny, it’s a testament to his personal hard work, but also the training and development the club has helped him with too.”
Perez played in NCFC’s academy from 2014 to 2017 and in his final two seasons he tallied 20 goals across 62 matches. In 2016, he was named the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Player of Year for the Eastern Conference and was named to the Best XI.
The U.S. national team has kept an eye on Perez too. He’s featured for the Stars and Stripes at the youth level, getting caps for the U-18 and U-20 teams. He helped the U.S. qualify for the 2019 U-20 World Cup and could feature for Tab Ramos’ side in Poland later this year.
Still, despite all his success early on at the youth level, Perez wasn’t ready for a professional jump straight out of high school. He stayed close to home, enrolled at N.C. State and joined the Wolfpack’s soccer team.
He was valuable to N.C. State’s success over two seasons – helping them qualify for a pair of NCAA tournaments – but for Perez, the college experience helped him grow not as just a soccer player, but as a person off the pitch.
“I think it was just more growing as a person. There was a lot of discipline,” Perez said. “My coaching staff there demanded a lot from me because they knew my potential to make it as a pro one day. The ACC is one of the best college leagues in the country. It definitely got me ready for a pro-environment.”
Shortly after his 2018 season with N.C. State ended following a second-round tournament loss to Maryland, Perez was on his way to Scotland for a two-week trial with Celtic.
He did enough to impress manager Brendan Rodgers, apparently, and his contract with the club was announced just before the transfer window closed in January. Just a few days later, he was in his first training session with Sarachan and the rest of the NCFC squad.
“It’s been pretty hectic. It’s exciting for me and my family and NCFC. It’s a great opportunity for me,” Perez said. “(Celtic is) a great club, with one of the biggest groups of supporters in the world, and I’m just excited. It’s been a long ride… It’s a club that likes to develop and play young players. I think it’s perfect for me. I’m blessed to get the opportunity to play with them.”
Perez wasn’t the only American to ink a deal with Celtic. Andrew Gutman, the 2018 Hermann Trophy winner from Indiana, also signed a deal with the Bhoys. He too was loaned to a USL Championship side. After MLS nixed a loan agreement for Gutman to join Nashville SC, he landed just down the road from Perez with the Charlotte Independence.
Although Perez says he hasn’t met Gutman yet, he said they talk and text a lot. Perez says he also has a relationship with Tim Weah, an American forward who is on-loan at Celtic right now from French side Paris-Saint Germain FC.
“We’re excited. We’re trying to bring as much as we can to Celtic,” Perez said. “I’m very close with (Weah) and hopefully he’s still there when I get over there.”
For Austin da Luz, an NCFC veteran who is beginning his eighth season with the club, it feels like he’s been watching Perez grow up right in front of his eyes. Six years ago, Perez was just one of the 14-year-old academy kids running around while the first team attended to business.
Now, Perez could be pictured next to da Luz in the Starting XI for NCFC in the league’s first game of the 2019 season.
“To be able to watch him progress through N.C. State to now signing his professional contract and join the first team officially is special. That’s what it’s all about,” da Luz said. “For a club like us to have kids like that come up through the system and be able to contribute — and I think he going to contribute in a big way — that’s why we do it.
“I think he’s a special player and I think he has a lot to learn, but he seems very willing and very open to learning.”