Gomez' lost season gives way to new life in Seattle
Every time we think we've heard the last of Herculez Gomez, he storms back with something special, something unexpected. We saw it two weekends ago, when he sparked a late rally in his debut with the Seattle Sounders, prodding them to a last-minute draw at Houston.
It was a vintage performance by the Las Vegas-bred forward, who is returning to a city he briefly called home 13 years ago. It is also the start, he hopes, of another chapter in one of the more intriguing careers we've seen from an American player.
Every time Gomez appears to have been knocked out, he comes back stronger. There was 2005, three years after signing his first MLS contract, when he abandoned indoor soccer to nail down a job with the LA Galaxy. He went on to score 18 goals as the team won the MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double. Five years later, after languishing with Sporting Kansas City, he headed to Mexico, scored 10 goals in half a year at Puebla, and found himself in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.
Last we saw, Gomez, he was seeing scant playing time with Toronto FC. He scored a big goal last October to prod the Reds into the playoffs, but next thing we hear, they're letting him go. Now he's popped up again in the Pacific Northwest, where he's reminded all that you dismiss him at your own peril.
Now 34, Gomez brought a distinct energy to the Sounders when he came on for Jordan Morris in the 79th minute of the 1-1 draw in Houston. His first touch was a turn-and-cross from the right flank to find Oalex Anderson one-on-one with Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. Five minutes later, he artfully set up Clint Dempsey, nodding an Andreas Ivanschitz lob into his path - a certain goal if not for center back Raul Rodriguez’ tremendous intervention.
I guess it's a one-man's-trash-is-another-man's-treasure type of thing ... They were bringing in a player on somebody else's dime.
He volleyed to Dempsey for another chance and found space among Houston's defenders as the Sounders put on heavy pressure leading to Chad Marshall's 94th-minute equalizer.
“His impact was very good,” praised Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who brought Gomez to MLS in 2002, when Schmid was in charge of the Galaxy. “I thought him and Oalex, as the two subs, really changed the game for us … Setting up the cross to Oalex, which almost results in a goal. The header he puts back across to Clint, which almost results in a goal. The volley to the far post to Clint, which results in a good chance.”
It's what the Sounders brought him in to do: provide veteran savvy off the bench as their attack evolves following Obafemi Martins' departure for China.
“I was anxious. Good kind of nerves. Ready to get my feet wet, champing at the bit,” Gomez said of his 2016 debut. “I knew that with the amount of, I guess, exhaustion that Houston put forth in the first half that there would be spaces in the second, and, sure enough, when I came in, those spaces were there, and it was just about trying to take advantage of them.”
Gomez was a steal for the Sounders. Toronto, which waived him on March 2, is paying a significant portion of his salary, which Schmid called “a good deal. That made it make more sense for us.”
“I guess it's a one-man's-trash-is-another-man's-treasure type of thing,” Gomez said. “It was minimal risk [for the Sounders]. They were bringing in a player on somebody else's dime, and Sigi, because he knew me, he gave me a chance.”
I was always the fast kid with a cracker of a shot. Now, all of a sudden, I have to regain that speed, I have to regain that shot. Now I have to do other things to show I belong.
Schmid offered a tryout -- to make sure Gomez was healthy and because “we wanted to see where his head was at, what his attitude was” -- and Gomez grudgingly accepted. He was convincing.
“Sigi asked me if I was OK with doing a trial,” Gomez said, “and I said, 'Well, not really, I think you guys have seen enough of me, but I want to be there, so I will do a trial if that's what it takes.' I had to prove that I want to be there. I had to prove that I still had it. Fortunately enough, things went my way.”
Schmid has known Gomez since the Galaxy discovered him, at 20, with the third-division San Diego Gauchos. They sent him to Seattle, then playing in the second-tier American Professional Soccer League, where he saw regular time until breaking his foot. It took some time to heal, and he spent a year in indoor soccer before rejoining the Galaxy in 2005.
He headed to Colorado in 2007 and Kansas City in 2009, then went to Mexico. Stints followed with Pachuca, Estudiantes Tecos, Santos Laguna (24 goals in a year and a half, three of them in a CONCACAF Champions' League series against the Sounders), Club Tijuana, UANL Tigres and Puebla again before signing with Toronto FC last summer.
Gomez became a craftier forward in Mexico.
“His reading of the game became better, his understanding of how his run related to his teammates' runs,” Schmid said. “He had to work with different strike partners in Mexico, and he's always been a guy who will do the dirty work off the ball for that strike partner as well. ... He knows his game. He knows what he's good at, and he tries to do what he's good at and put himself in those positions.
Sigi asked me if I was OK with doing a trial, and I said, 'Well, not really, I think you guys have seen enough of me, but I want to be there, so I will do a trial if that's what it takes.'
Gomez says that education started in 2007, after he returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament while with the Rapids.
“I had to learn not to rely on my physical ability,” he said. “I was always the fast kid with a cracker of a shot. Now, all of a sudden, I have to regain that speed, I have to regain that shot. Now I have to do other things to show I belong. It made me start playing with my back to goal, start trying to use more holdup play, to be more of an in-the-box striker.”
He didn't get much time in Toronto - less than 250 minutes over seven games, two of them starts. When the Sounders signed him on March 24, Gomez told reporters that his situation in Toronto was “poorly managed” and that he had a “chip on my shoulder.”
“If I'm being honest, maybe the style of play wasn't the best fit for me,” he told FourFourTwo, confessing, “I don't think it was all [TFC’s] fault.” “I'm not a player that creates a whole ton for himself. I do depend on service. I've shown throughout my career that if I have service, I can put the ball in the back of the net, and sometimes as a forward in some of the formations we played or the style that we played [with TFC], it wasn't maybe suited [for me].”
He's ecstatic to be back in Seattle, with what he describes as “a team that tries to play. They're very good putting the ball on the ground and playing, trying to combine. They've got very good soccer brains. It's very easy to fit in here, on the field and off.”
Last Sunday's draw felt like a victory, Gomez said, and the team’s since followed with a 2-1 victory at home against Philadelphia, with Gomez missing a chance at his season’s first goal when a failed to convert a late chance created by Joevin Jones. The team’s still trying to figure out who they are after Martins’ departure, with the attack producing only six goals through as many games this season.
Gomez believes he can help. He's embraced the role Schmid has asked him to fill.
“Whatever you think about my game, your personal taste of it, I've been there, I've done that in certain places, and I've won things,” Gomez said. “I know what it's like to get to finals, to lose finals, to win finals. I know what it's like to be the lowest-paid guy on the team and what it's like to be the highest-paid guy on the team. I think I bring a certain level of experience that could be valuable down the road …
“That is my main goal, is to help the team. I feel that I can contribute whatever it may be.”