Few expected a 34-year-old on a three-month contract to depose Designated Player Nelson Valdez in Seattle’s lineup. But if Herculez Gomez’s spot in the starting XI seems tenuous, well, he feeds off your presumptuous negativity.
Herculez Gomez is surprised that you’re surprised.
This is the way it has gone his entire career: Doubters silenced by an odds-defying triumph, followed by more doubters, followed by another breakthrough.
So although few expected a 34-year-old on a three-month contract to depose Designated Player Nelson Valdez in the Sounders’ lineup, even temporarily, there was some precedent. And if Gomez’s spot in the starting 11 seems tenuous, well, he feeds off the negativity.
“It’s funny to me that doubts are there,” Gomez said this week. “I don’t know why, when you look at my career on paper.”
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Gomez has played for 13 clubs in his professional career, 14 if you consider the USL Sounders and the MLS version as separate entities. He won MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and Mexican league titles with Santos Laguna and Puebla. He played for the U.S. national team at the 2010 World Cup.
But if any of these accomplishments have dulled his edge, Gomez gives little sign of it.
“There are going to be people who doubt you, people who don’t like your game,” Gomez said this week. “My response is always going to be the same. My play is going to be a big, for lack of a better word, (expletive) you.”
Becoming a team player
Gomez was 20 when he arrived in Seattle on loan from the Galaxy in 2003. He broke a foot playing against the now-defunct Yakima Reds and spent most of his first Sounders tenure watching from the sideline.
“It was very uneventful,” Gomez said. “But I learned a lot. I learned what it’s like to be counted on in a team environment, what it’s like to be injured and have to come back quickly to help the team.
“(I was) still not old enough where I could go out (to bars), but old enough where I could fend for myself. That was different. No curfew, nobody telling me what to do. You have to set your own boundaries, your own schedule.
“My outlook on life (now) is different. My approach to the game is much different – my respect for my coaching staff and superiors and players overall. My appreciation for the game, everything.”
‘I want to stay here’
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid praised Gomez following Seattle’s 2-0 win over San Jose last Saturday, complimenting his effort during a third consecutive start. The veteran has yet to register a goal or assist, but as Schmid put it, “He has sacrificed his game” to do the necessary dirty work on the wing.
“I want to stay here,” Gomez said. “I’m under contract until June. I consider myself a winner. If that’s what it takes to win, that’s what I’ll do.
“In spite of my age, I think I’ve got a pretty good motor. Goals, assists, they’re going to come. I know myself. That’s the one thing throughout my career that’s always been there. If I’m getting chances, I feel more than confident they’re going to be put into the back of the net.
“This is a business for me. This is what I do as a job. It’s a job I want to continue to do. … Sacrifice isn’t the right word, because I don’t consider it sacrifice. I consider it my job.”
When Gomez left MLS for Mexico’s Liga MX after the 2009 season, it felt more like the end of the road than a new beginning. He hadn’t netted a goal in 26 league appearances for Kansas City that previous season, but he scored 10 for Puebla the next year to become the first American to lead a foreign league in goals.
“All of a sudden, my world changes,” Gomez said. “My eyes are opened. This is something I can do for the rest of my life. You go about that with a different outlook than if it’d been handed to you at 19, 20.
“(But) I was very afraid, scared of losing it all. … The hunger is always there, and you don’t take those moments for granted.”
The same player
American soccer fans know San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski as the player who missed the would-be game-winner against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup.
To Gomez, though, he’s a kindred spirit and a prism through which to view his own career. Both entered the league on bargain-basement developmental contracts, played against each other in the reserve league and established themselves long after most had written them off.
“We’ve always been the same player,” Gomez said. “He’s a guy that I respect so much, because he was never given anything. He went out there and worked for it. He wasn’t highly recruited or highly touted.
“Even when he was scoring goals, it was always, ‘Yeah, but … .’ Even now that he’s the fourth-leading goal-scorer in MLS history, you still hear the occasional, ‘Yeah, Wondo, but … .’ It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m a huge fan of his.
“It’s the same thing. Maybe if he was given all this at an earlier age, he wouldn’t be the guy he is today.”
It is inwardly frustrating for Gomez, having to constantly prove himself despite a resume most would envy. As he contemplates the final stretch of his career, however, a messy divorce with Toronto FC seems to have connected Gomez with an earlier, hungrier version of himself.
His return to the Sounders brings his career arc full circle in more ways than one: Gomez is being dismissed as an elite-level goal-scorer in a way he hasn’t in years, maybe not since he was a wide-eyed kid living in a downtown Seattle studio apartment.
“From the moment I left (Toronto), to the moment I got here on trial, I made it personal,” Gomez said. “Everywhere I’ve been in the same thing. Maybe I don’t come flying out of the gates and win a starting position right away. But I stay patient, I do my work, I roll up my sleeves, and when I get a chance I try to take advantage of it.
“I’ve always been the guy that wants to prove people wrong. I want to shut you up. I’m very aware of myself and things around me. I think that’s been a key factor in my drive.
“(Sounders teammate) Clint (Dempsey) has got that same thing, and I love that about him. Clint’s got that me-against-the-world thing. I’m not so me-against-the-world, but I always want to prove you wrong.”