Single dad revs up game on mission to "rep the U.S."

Thomas Alleman

The email came on a Thursday, and Jose "Chikawala Bang Bang" Perez could hardly believe his eyes. 

In a few short weeks, this 22-year-old street soccer player from Long Beach, Calif., would be on an airplane headed to the epicenter of the soccer universe – Rio de JaneiroBrazil. There, against the electrifying backdrop of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Perez will compete with seven other players from around the globe as part of Every Street United.

"They said there will be a lot of surprises, but they don't budge when I ask them exactly what's going to happen," says Perez, still stunned at the good fortune of his upcoming tournament, which runs from June 8 to June 17. "All I know is that there's seven other players from different countries, and I have to compete in four-on-four. I'm going to rep the U.S.!"

With the pressure on ("It's kind of nerve-wracking, actually," he admits) Perez has ramped up his training efforts. "I'm playing as much as I can," he says. "Playing every day, training, running, trying to keep up with everybody. Any tournament that I know of where there's going to be good players, I'm there." 

And Hector Polo Jr., his longtime coach and mentor, has been pushing him harder than ever before: "He's like, 'You can rest when you die,'" Perez laughs.

This isn't Perez's first time traveling outside of the U.S. – he's been to Mexico before – but it's certainly the farthest. And his journey comes with a high-stakes mission: to prove that the United States can now stand alongside countries like Spain, Holland, Argentina and South Korea, all of whom are represented in Every Street United, on the world street soccer court. 

"I have to show them what I can do," Perez vows. "Everyone makes fun of U.S. soccer, because we're so behind in style and things. But right now we're doing so good, I have to show the world how our game as a nation has gone up."

Perez's family couldn't be happier for him, and the same goes for teammates on his Concrete Royalty soccer crew, who have asked him to take plenty of pictures and bring back souvenirs. Most of Perez's friends are Real Madrid fans, but he favors that team's main rival, Barcelona. "So I said, 'All right, I'll bring you back aBarcelona jersey,'" Perez says with a chuckle.

Perhaps best of all, the news comes at a time of much-improved relations with Jennifer, the mother of his one-year-old daughter, Delilah.

"Everything is going way better. We're communicating and there's no arguing," he says. It was Jennifer who recently brought up the possibility of the two getting back together. "I couldn't believe it came out of her," he says. "I felt so emotional."

All in all, things are looking up for this single dad, who earns minimum wage, sometimes working seven days a week, at a car rim manufacturing plant.

Says Perez: "2014 has been great for me."

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