GUADALAJARA, Mexico – With the trajectory of Herculez Gomez's career in Mexico, he couldn't have chosen a more appropriate club to join than one known as Los Guerreros – The Warriors.
Santos Laguna’s nickname is certainty more appropriate for Gomez than those of his former Mexican clubs: the Owls, the Gophers and the Sweet Potato Farmers.
His career down south has been a series of battles for playing time, of winning over coaches and, most importantly, of putting the ball in the back of the net with consistency. Gomez is again fighting for playing time, with the first seven games of the season yielding less than an hour on the field, after joining Santos in December.
“I’ve been starving for minutes," Gomez told MLSsoccer.com recently. “That’s been the case everywhere I’ve gone, but somehow, someway, I’ve managed to squeeze my way in, earn some minutes, earn my spot and keep it. I’m hoping the same holds true.”
Recent signs suggest that Gomez’s perseverance and drive are already reaping rewards, right before the first leg of the long-awaited CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against the Seattle Sounders coming up on March 7.
Last weekend, the 29-year-old played the second half of the game against Chivas de Guadalajara with his team down 2-0. Gomez helped rouse his team with his first goal in green and white – a spectacular one, at that – to put Santos back into the match.
Trailing 2-1, Gomez drew a last-minute penalty, but saw his conversion to tie the game saved.
His performance was good enough that he is likely to start in Saturday’s game against San Luis, especially with Colombian Darwin Quintero out injured for two weeks and the club on a three-game winless streak.
It will be Gomez’s first start for Santos and he will be keen to make an impression in order to secure his spot for the Seattle trip that he is very much looking forward to.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I want my teammates to get a good feel for what MLS is turning into, because I’m proud of it. I think Seattle is a perfect showcase of what MLS could potentially be all around.”
Despite the niceties, the former Sounder – Gomez played on loan from the LA Galaxy with the USL version of the club in 2003 – is keen to do everything he can to beat Seattle once the whistle blows. But the respect he has for the MLS club is clearly huge and he is adamant that Santos cannot take the Sounders lightly.
“Offensively, they’ve got a very free-flowing game,” said Gomez. “Tactically, they are very hard to break down. They are big, strong guys. Set pieces are going to be an issue.”
The 2010 World Cup veteran cites Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson as big threats for the Sounders and says that playing on turf will be a factor – although Santos won’t be using it as an excuse, and Gomez will go into the match looking to show up a certain naysayer.
Back in 2003, when Gomez was just a teenager trying to make it in MLS with the Galaxy, Sigi Schmid, the head coach of the team at the time, told Gomez he couldn't see a future in the game for the young striker.
“I don't really blame the guy because I was only 19 years old and I’m not the same player now as when I was 19," Gomez said. "But he didn’t see soccer in my future and if you ever speak to him – I think he’s tactically a brilliant man on the football pitch – but I don’t think socially he’s the best. Not taking anything away from him or having a dig at him, because I think he’s proven to be a great coach, but I wasn’t his cup of tea and he made that known.”
That snub, and others throughout his career, have been important motivating factors, including the time he left the Sounders to play indoor soccer as he struggled to make his mark as a pro.
“I use everything I can as motivation and, at the end of the day, I try and have a smile and try and have a laugh at things,” Gomez explained.
For MLS fans that don’t follow Mexican soccer that regularly, Santos are known as an attacking team, good in possession and decent defensively. The fact they have reached three out of the last four finals in Mexico is a testament not just to their quality, but also to their experience in two-leg knockout tournaments.
Perhaps the most internationally-focused and outward-thinking Mexican club – Gomez describes it as having a “very American” business mentality – Santos badly want a shot at the Club World Cup.
On a personal level, Gomez says that playing in a second Club World Cup – his first was with Pachuca in 2010 – would be special and trying to achieve that was a subsidiary reason for joining Santos.
Gomez, bilingual and with ample experience both sides of the Rio Grande, believes the rivalry between Mexican and American clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League got a shot in the arm in last year's finals, when Real Salt Lake and Monterrey fought out a close and memorable final two games.
“It was really cool to see because, I don’t want to say turning of the tides, but it was a reality check for both sides,” he said.
However, he admits there is a general lack of respect from both Mexican and MLS teams about each other.
“It saddens me,” said Gomez. “Mexican teams think MLS teams will come down here and we’ll beat them every time, and MLS clubs think the same thing over there.”
But when Gomez trots out onto the CenturyLink Field next week, the one thing that definitely won’t be missing is a healthy dose of respect, both from Gomez to the crowd and vice versa.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org