Gomez seizing the opportunities given
As the US national team left Guatemala on Tuesday night after its 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw, and as most of the team departed for sorely-needed vacation time, no player did more to raise his stock in the squad’s recent run of matches than Herculez Gomez.
The veteran striker emerged to take hold of a starting spot for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side, making the most of his opportunities, playing a role in five of the 10 goals the team scored during their five-game stretch. Quite an impressive haul for a player who came into training camp late because he was with club team Santos Laguna on a Mexican League championship-winning run.
Despite his belated start, Gomez made up for lost time quickly and impressed Klinsmann enough to earn starts in four straight matches, including the team’s two World Cup qualifiers.
“I just came in with the idea of putting my head down and working hard and being a good teammate,” Gomez said. “I knew Jurgen and the coaching staff most likely would know that I’d be a good finisher in front of goal so I wanted to concentrate on different things. My hold-up play. My combination play. How tactically I could be helpful on the defensive side of the ball.
“Let’s be honest. I got here because of my stats, but I want to stay here because of other things.”
Gomez showed Klinsmann that he is a well-rounded player capable of leading the attack. This was enough to earn him a place ahead of regular starter Jozy Altidore, who also came into training camp late after being held back by his club team.
“We found a striker that is very mobile, that is a fighter, that keeps defenders busy,” Klinsmann said of Gomez. “He has really impressed us with the way he reads the game and the way he works defenders.
“He isn’t afraid of anybody.”
Gomez’s fearlessness has been honed by a career that has had its shares of ups and downs. His first taste of success came in 2005, as the leading goal scorer on an LA Galaxy team that won the MLS Cup and US Open Cup.
His next four years in MLS were rocky to say the least. He was traded to Colorado, where he played well enough to earn a place on the 2007 US Copa America team, but promptly tore his ACL after returning from national team duty.
That injury forced Gomez to change his game a bit, and go from being a pure speed forward to a more intelligent but physically imposing player. The change didn’t lead to immediate success though. He was traded from Colorado to the then Kansas City Wizards, where he never settled in. He scored just one goal in two seasons and left the team after the 2009 season, facing an uncertain future.
“I was told by Peter Vermes that if I wanted to play forward for the Kansas City Wizards I’d be the fifth forward in the line,” Gomez said. “I pretty much got the short end of the stick on a deal. They promised something and came back with a very lowball offer.
“I didn’t have many options so I had to learn how to survive, had to learn how to fend for myself,” Gomez said. “I’ve just kept surviving and along the way of trying to survive I think I’ve been smart enough to soak everything I can in.
“Most importantly I was given an opportunity,” Gomez said. “I feel like, throughout my career, when I’ve been given an opportunity and I have been given an extended run of minutes, I have proven myself to be a capable player.”
Everything changed for Gomez when he moved to Mexican club Puebla, which took a chance on him without ever seeing him in person, and only because another player had abruptly left the club to return home. Gomez rewarded the faith by scoring ten goals to win the Golden Boot for the 2010 Clausura campaign (beating out Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in his last season at Chivas).
What followed has been a whirlwind. His success at Puebla led to Pachuca buying him. He enjoyed modest success as a reserve there before moving to Estudiantes Tecos, where he scored seven more goals in a half season. That led to powerhouse Santos Laguna buying him, and he responded by scoring 11 goals in all competitions during the Clausura campaign, helping Santos reach the CONCACAF Champions League Final and win the Mexican title.
Gomez’s success in Mexico helped him earn a place on the US World Cup team in 2010, and helped him get back in the national team picture last month. However, his move away from MLS and the almost two years away from the national team meant a disappearance from the radar screens of most American soccer fans.
“I’m known all throughout Mexico right now but like my own people in my country don’t even know me or haven’t seen me play,” Gomez said. “I don’t think a lot of casual American fans have seen me play. They probably haven’t come across a Mexican League game or seen Santos play.
“I’m sure some MLS fans have seen me now because of the CONCACAF (Champions League) run, and for some of them it was probably the first chance to see what kind of player I am.”
As unfamiliar as some American soccer fans might be with him, he has quietly compiled one of the most impressive resumes in the soccer world in terms of big games and tournaments played.
“I don’t have a lot of national team caps, but you’d be hard-pressed to find players that have played in Copa America, the World Cup, the Club World Cup, CONCAF Champions, won in two different leagues,” Gomez said. “It all looks great on paper but I feel like I’m just scratching the surface so I definitely feel like those moments have given me that confidence and I feel like I’m starting to be the player I want to be.”
While there aren’t a bunch of American fans watching Gomez play in Mexico, the 30-year-old striker has managed to keep his profile up in US soccer circles is via Twitter. He’s become one of the most vocal and entertaining voices on Twitter among American soccer players. When he left for Mexico in 2010, Gomez had about 200 followers on a private account, but once he started scoring goals, and rolling out the tweets, both in English and Spanish, his follower count rose quickly and now sits just below 50,000.
A few months back, Gomez caused a stir with his account when he listed himself as a “former US national team player” after having not been called in for more than a year.
“It’s an amazing tool. I don’t think people realize just how amazing it is,” Gomez said of the popular social networking site. “Understanding what you can use it for, the message you can send. Sometimes you don’t have a voice being a public figure. I never considered myself a public figure until I went down to Mexico and I started living that life.
“Sometimes you get a different perception of yourself that’s not you that you read about or you hear about,” Gomez said. “With this tool you have more of a voice and people can really connect with who you are outside of the field.”
Gomez acknowledges that there can be pitfalls to Twitter, and at times he has caught himself before sending questionable messages. As for his profile, he took the word “former” off his national team status after playing against Scotland in the first of the US team’s five recent matches.
“I think it’s all about going with your best judgment, but at the same time you want to push the envelope a little bit,” Gomez said of Twitter. “You don’t want to be too reserved. This is your voice and we still live in a country with free speech and you’re protected by your constitutional rights.
“I give people about 30 percent of myself on Twitter,” Gomez said. “That’s the honest truth. I’d like to give more but I also have certain companies and teams to represent so I really can’t do more.”
On the field, Gomez is giving one hundred percent of himself, which has led to a starting role in World Cup qualifying. The funny part about that is for all his accomplishments, this is his first World Cup qualifying cycle. After everything he’s been through in his career, he knows just how tenuous a hold on a national team place can be, and he isn’t ready to give it up any time soon.
“Coming in from the last World Cup, at the end of that cycle, and literally taking somebody’s spot who did the whole cycle, you know how valuable these moments are to prove yourself,” Gomez said. “Just because you’re here at the beginning doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be here at the end. I, more than anybody, know that.
“I want to not only start strong, but finish strong. I want to be someone this national team can depend on.”