GUADALAJARA, Mexico – It might have been a brief moment, less than a half of soccer. But for a good span on Wednesday night, Herculez Gomez looked like he was within reaching distance of adding his name to the all-too-short list of Americans who have hoisted a continental club title.
His Santos Laguna were up 2-0, tied on aggregate and pressing for the winning goal against defending champions Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League finals. Then, with eight minutes remaining, Monterrey scored, the momentum swung heavily in favor of los Rayados thanks to the away-goal rule and, when the whistle blow, the dream came to a crushing end for Gomez & Co.
“We thought we were in the driver’s seat in that moment,” a disappointed Gomez told MLSsoccer.com from Torreón the morning after the game, "and to have them get a goal off a deflection kind of took the wind out of our sails."
Gomez’s fine form in the CCL had propelled Santos Laguna into the finals. The forward scored three times against the Seattle Sounders in the quarterfinals – twice at home and once in the away leg – and then repeated the exact same figures in the semifinals against Toronto FC.
An even half-dozen for Gomez in the tournament meant he ended the competition with just one goal less than Golden Boot winners Oribe Peralta and Humberto Suazo. That's even more impressive considering that the American only featured for Santos in the knockout rounds after signing for the Torreón-based club in December.
In spite of the impressive statistic, the Los Angeles-born striker is hard on himself for not doing more.
“On a personal level, I’m extremely disappointed with myself,” he lamented. “I went on a run where I’m scoring goals home and away, first leg and second leg in the quarterfinals and semifinals and then I get injured and, when my team needs me most, I can’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
The groin injury Gomez suffered in the semifinal second leg against TFC disrupted his run in the Santos starting lineup, and perhaps explained why coach Benjamín Galindo didn’t use him from the start against Monterrey on Wednesday – Gomez came on in the 56th minute.
Putting the obvious disappointment aside, Gomez said playing in both games in the final of a continental cup was special.
“It’s like 1,000 miles per hour when you’re in there and the intensity is lifted up like 100 notches because it’s a final,” he said, “and you can feel the vibe off the crowd and just everything is kind of an out-of-body experience.”
The 2010 World Cup veteran believes being part of such occasions is important for American players in developing themselves for when there are pressure situations in games.
“It’s essential that players experience these types of games and these types of environments,” he said. “You see guys like Clint [Dempsey], Landon [Donovan] and Tim [Howard] – they’ve played at the highest level and, when it comes to crunch time in these type of games, it’s nothing overwhelming. Once players realize that, they are going to learn, grow and become better for it.”
Currently in first place in the Mexican Primera División standings, Santos Laguna have now lost four finals in the last two years, but will get another chance at silverware in the playoffs.
Gomez believes his team has got a great chance and is determined to pick himself up and get his name back on the score sheet.
“I think the injury really took the wind out of my sails,” he said. “I was on a good run, but it’s time to buck up, get on another run and do my job.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.