GUADALAJARA, Mexico – For the second consecutive year, Herculez Gomez is the lone American flying the flag in the CONCACAF Champions League finals.
The Santos Laguna forward’s team faces Monterrey on Wednesday in first leg of the two-game series, a repeat of last year’s final (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer, Univision Deportes). On that occasion, Los Rayados’ Neri Cardozo grabbed a goal late in the second leg to hand Monterrey the title.
The hurt still resonates with Gomez and his Santos teammates.
“We’re well aware of what we missed out on, I think we’re all champing at the bit to get on that field tomorrow and try to win this,” Gomez told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Torreón on Tuesday. “For us, the importance has been transmitted down from ownership; we want to compete on an international basis.”
Gomez has scored nine goals in the CCL in just 14 appearances in his career, all against MLS teams, but is yet to win the competition and wants to have the chance to compete in the Club World Cup once again. His first time came in 2010 with Pachuca, where he arrived after the club won the CCL.
“I think to get to my second Club World Cup with a different team would be a nice little validation and something really special for me on a personal note,” explained the US international.
Wednesday’s final heads another massive period of games for the 31-year-old fan favorite, with the finals against Monterrey, then the Liga MX playoffs – for which Santos have already qualified – followed by vital national team qualifiers in June.
This season has, so far, been one of Gomez’s best since moving to Mexico in January 2010. He has started 18 of his side’s 19 games in all competitions, scoring six goals along the way as his team continues to fight for trophies.
However, he freely admits there wasn’t so much optimism about the current campaign at the start of 2013, with Benjamín Galindo leaving as Santos coach and Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha coming in.
“To be honest, I didn’t fancy playing in the midfield, but [Caixinha] sat down and talked to me and assured me that if I did the right things I’d have a place, that there’d be open competition,” said the 2010 World Cup veteran. “He’s always been up front with me. He knows what he can get out of me. He’s been very fair and I think we both just want the best for the team, so it’s been a mutual pleasant surprise. “
Gomez has become an important cog in Caixinha’s transformation of Santos from a team the Las Vegas native says had the ability to score by the bucketful, but also concede more than they should, to one in which defensive solidity is given a much greater priority.
Playing mainly on the right wing, Gomez’s work rate, tactical awareness and ability to defend from the front has been a factor in the Guerreros leaking the fewest amount of goals in the Liga MX this season.
As Gomez explains, “Our bread and butter is our defensive shape.”
But if Gomez is to pick up the CCL trophy, his side will have to overcome a well-oiled, experienced Monterrey outfit looking to win its third straight CONCACAF title.
Although Santos won the Liga MX game between the two in the Estadio Corona 1-0 last Friday, the former LA Galaxy striker believes the Rayados will show a different face come Wednesday.
“I think they might have saved a few guys for this game, so I’m expecting a very different team,” he said. “I see them being more explosive, especially out of the midfield.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.