Herculez Gomez takes improbable path to World Cup
Herculez Gomez's ascension to the top of the soccer ladder in the United States is simply astounding.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Herculez Gomez knows a little something about beating the odds.
When he joined the Wizards in a late-season trade in 2008, the team was mired at the bottom of the standings. The playoffs seemed out of the question with seven games to play. But . . .
"We went on an improbable run where in our last seven games we had to win five games, and we went 5-1-1," Gomez said. "We were the hottest team in MLS and I felt good."
Certainly not as good as he feels today as he trains with the U.S. national team in South Africa in preparation for its World Cup opener Saturday against England.
Gomez's ascension to the top of the soccer ladder in this country is simply astounding.
Just six months ago Gomez and the Wizards failed to agree to a contract. He was out of a job and had few prospects.
So Gomez, 28, headed home to Las Vegas to be with his family and work out on his own. It was Christmas, so his two brothers and two sisters joined their big brother at their parents' home.
"He was in a tough spot after he got released from Kansas City, but we were all there for him," said his brother Ulysses, who is an MMA fighter.
"He leans on us and we lean on him and we lean on each other so we're still upright. Does that make sense? If I'm leaning on something, it could fall over, but if I lean on him and he's leaning back on me, we're both OK."
Not big on pep talks, Ulysses offered some simple advice.
"I was like, 'You're good and you know what you've done and you can do it again,"' Ulysses recalled. "We don't have to tell you you're good. It's just a matter of proving it to everyone else."
But that was the trouble. Because the Wizards owned his rights, Gomez likely wasn't going to find a job in MLS. So he looked south of the border. Gomez spent part of the 2001 season playing in Mexico, and more importantly, he has a Mexican passport.
There's a limit on the number of foreign players per team in Mexico, but Gomez didn't count against that cap. With basically nothing to lose, Puebla offered him a six-month contract.
Almost immediately, Gomez rediscovered his scoring touch. In 14 games, he had 10 goals, which tied for the league lead. He was the first American to be the top goal scorer in another country.
"I don't think they expected what happened," Gomez said of Puebla. "Throughout my career I've shown that when healthy, I can be someone who is dangerous around the goal and can produce."
Gomez's resume is solid. He had 11 goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and found the back of the net 17 times in 2002 for the San Diego Gauchos of the Player Development League.
There were some rough patches, too. From 2007-09, Gomez scored 12 goals in 101 games for the Wizards, Galaxy and Colorado Rapids. Injuries took a toll as Gomez tore his ACL shortly after returning from playing two games for the U.S. national team in the summer of 2007.
Gomez was traded from Colorado to the Wizards in 2008 and started the last seven games when the team made its unlikely run to the postseason. But at the start of 2009, Gomez hurt the meniscus in his knee.
"I am partly to blame for the inconsistency I've shown the last few years, but I'm finally playing healthy," Gomez said. "People can say what they want about the Mexican league and MLS, but I've had success in both leagues. And each one is not an easy league."
As he began his scoring spree in Mexico "the media scrutiny this spring was thousand times stronger than it was in the States," Gomez said
That helped him get on U.S. coach Bob Bradley's radar. A Facebook page that campaigned for Gomez's inclusion to the U.S. team was even created.
The added attention was good news for Gomez, who didn't follow the usual route to the national team. Some players make their names in college, while others move up the pipeline in the U.S. national youth teams, such as fellow forward Jozy Altidore.
Gomez graduated high school and, after a brief stay in Mexico, joined San Diego in the lowest level of pro soccer in the United States. But that only motivated him more.
"I don't have the pedigree other guys have," Gomez said. "I've recently learned I've got to work twice as hard because I'm not as talented as the rest of the players around me. I've come to terms with that. That's the one thing that's benefiting me this year."
That's why Gomez didn't mind coming off the bench for Puebla where he was a substitute in eight of his 14 games. Having someone who can provide a second-half spark is crucial for any team.
For a World Cup club, it's absolutely vital. Gomez tallied one goal last week against Australia and also scored against the Czech Republic last month.
Not that he wouldn't rather be a starter.
"My mentality isn't that I'm a super sub. It's just that if I want to play, I've been given an opportunity as a substitute," Gomez said. "So when I come on, I want to take advantage of that opportunity I've been given. The one thing that I've learned this year is you have to make the most of your opportunities. They may not be the ones that knock on the door and say 'I'm opportunity,' but little subtle ones and you've got to take advantage of them."
Gomez has done that this year as he's gone from the unemployment line to the World Cup.