Nick Perera: Running on the field and running the show
Opportunity knocks when you least expect it, and you must grab it. You don't necessarily know the next time it will come.
Such was the case with Nick Perera.
Some three games into the Major Arena Soccer League season, a job offer that could change the rest of his soccer career came out of nowhere. The veteran forward was offered to coach the Tacoma Stars.
It was not expected. Head coach Darren Sawatzky was named coach of FC Tucson of USL League One, leaving the Stars without a boss. But the powers that be at the Stars felt they had someone who could lead the way -- Perera, who was named Sawatzky's successor on Dec. 21.
"It was a situation that came somewhat out of nowhere," Perera said. "When Darren left, I was consulted, and the conversations moved very quickly. It was and is an honor."
Before he left, Sawatzky gave Perera his blessing.
“I cannot think of a better person or leader to take the reins with the Tacoma Stars," he said at the time. "Nick has a vast knowledge of small-sided soccer at many levels and his influence as the head coach will only foster a better team and environment here. I wish him the very best in his new role and I will be watching this project as these guys hunt for wins this season."
At the age of 32, there is plenty of mileage left in the legs of Perera, who wanted to coach someday. He just didn't think it would come this soon.
Like he does on an arena soccer pitch against opposing defenders, he took it and ran with it as he became one of the youngest professional coaches in the U.S.
"It was always an aspiration of mine to coach at a professional level, but to be able to do so at this moment of my career is something I wasn’t expecting but is certainly a welcome surprise."
There was one stipulation, however. By taking the job, he didn't want to lose one of the Stars' most important players -- himself. So, he has been a player-coach, not exactly the easiest thing to do in any sport, let alone the fast-paced action of arena soccer.
So, his learning curve has been steep at times.
"I am learning on the job, which makes things easier in some aspects, and much harder in others," Perera said. "I’ll continue to learn and work to improve myself daily."
With the help of his players.
"I have a core group of veteran leaders who help me with my duties, and a mature group of men who are able to handle the situation professionally," Perera said.
If you look at the league leaders in three categories at MASLSoccer.com, you will see Perera's photo at the top of two of them. He leads everyone is points (27) and assists (16). He is tied for seventh in assists with 11.
For someone who is juggling two roles, those numbers are impressive.
After last week's tally -- Perera had a goal and an assist in a 9-8 defeat to the Monterey Flash and picked up a goal and assisted on five others in the 8-5 victory over the Ontario Fury -- Perera was named to the MASL team of the week for the second time this season.
So far, the dual roles have been working out.
"Finding a balance between the two facets is a delicate affair, and one that I’ll continue to work on and improve," he said. "It takes a very mature group of men to work in a situation like this, and this team is exactly that. I’m very lucky to play alongside and coach this group, and every one of them has helped me in this transition."
As a player, you are one of the boys. As the coach, you are the boss.
"Because of the maturity level of my team, it’s easy to wear multiple hats and be able to step into both roles somewhat seamlessly," Perera said.
If you look at Perera's life and career, he was destined to play soccer and lead men. He was born in Madrid, Spain to a Spanish father and an American mother. He spent most of his childhood in Belgium, being able to speak five languages, including Italian, Dutch, French, Spanish and English. Anywhere in the soccer universe, speaking multiple languages is a plus for so many reasons.
As a standout performer at UC Santa Barbara, Perera helped the Gauches capture the 2006 NCAA Division I men's championship, being named the College Cup's Most Outstanding Offensive player. He wound up playing for the Bakersfield Brigade (Premier Development League) and for Benidorm CF in Spain before embarking on a career in the MASL.
Since 2010, his stops have taken him to the San Diego Sockers (twice), Milwaukee Wave, Ontario Fury, Syracuse Silver Knight and now the Stars. He also has worn the Red, White and Blue, playing for the U.S. at the 2013 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
These days, however, he is more concerned about soccer with a roof over his head.
Perera's most memorable match as coach to date?
Easy. His first one as player-coach, on Dec. 22. He assisted on the winning goal by Adam West in the fourth quarter in a 5-4 win over San Diego.
"My first game as a head coach has to stand out thus far, regardless of the result," Perera said, adding that it was "a special day for me and my family."
Entering this weekend's action, the Stars are in second place in the Pacific Division with a 5-4 record, hovering just over third-place Ontario (6-5). With 15 games remaining in the regular season, there's a long way to the playoffs and much to improve on.
"Every team has its own path to improvement," Perera said. "We are on our path, and we approach every training session or match with humility, sacrifice and maximum accountability."
The Sockers (8-1) might be out of reach for the Stars and the Fury. So, the battle for second place and a post-season berth in the Pacific Division has become so much more vital.
"Winning last weekend was extremely important," Perera said. "Every divisional match is of dire importance and winning at home against an excellent Ontario Fury team was special."
But don't expect Perera and the Stars to rest on their laurels. They have two pretty high-profile division matches this weekend. They host San Diego on Friday night and travel to San Diego on Sunday.
"Winning both matches would be fantastic, but that’s not how I like to look at things," Perera said. "We are trying to improve, match by match, and grow professionally as we progress throughout the regular season. We are improving and continuing to do so will hopefully translate in wins for the organization. It would be wonderful to be able to learn and improve whilst winning, but improvement must be our benchmark."