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It was a uniquely American soccer career, spanning the arc of the sport’s development stateside in the last two decades, careening from plodding and often-folding minor league teams to championships in Major League Soccer and Mexico’s Liga MX.
It was a Vegas career, too. One of endless chances taken, with plenty resulting in nothing but many more paying out. A career forged in defiance to preposterously long odds, so unlikely that to even call it a rags-to-riches story would be to diminish it somehow.
Herculez Gomez, an occasional United States men’s national team striker, lately of the Seattle Sounders, who thrived in the Mexican Liga MX and became the first American to lead a major foreign league in scoring there, announced his retirement on Tuesday. He is joining ESPN as an analyst.
And so ends a soccer life that took an unknown, unrecruited, unheralded teenager from Las Vegas through 16 semi-pro and professional teams in three countries and to a World Cup over 16 years. The game never gave Gomez an entirely fair shake. So he stubbornly thrashed and struggled and bulled his way in anyway. Until he’d had his fill.
“There comes a time for every athlete when you realize there’s a certain shelf life, there’s a certain period where you’re productive, and there’s a time when it’s appropriate to move on,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I felt mine coming. I love the game so much. And, to be honest, I could have played another year or two, but it would have been just me being stubborn. In my final years, injuries have taken their toll and I haven’t been as productive. It just wasn’t something I was willing to continue to do.”
Gomez sees the young players coming up. And he recognizes that some are better. He wants to clear the path. He’d rather not stand in their way on account of what he was, rather than what he is.
“Sometimes I felt like because I did what I did and I was where I was that I would maybe get the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “And those are insecurities that I don’t like creeping in.”
He has had three surgeries on his right knee. On a lot of days, his body still feels pretty good, though. It’s just that he’d sooner not be a role player. He’d rather jump into his new career in television and settle down in Connecticut with his wife, Elsie, who was a reporter for the Televisa channel and a school teacher when they met during his time in Mexico.
The game gave him nothing. It was all earned. But he still got so much more than anyone thought he would. He doesn’t feel like he can, in all decency, make it give him more.
“I’m your classic overachiever,” Gomez said. “I was never supposed to get this far. I was never the biggest, strongest, fastest or the most clever on the field. I didn’t have an extremely high skill level. But I’ll be damned if anybody outworked me. I feel very fortunate to have gotten as far as I’ve gotten, to see what I’ve seen.”
“I look back at it and feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation,” Gomez continued. “I wasn’t recruited out of high school; I wasn’t the best in my age group growing up. The chips have kind of just fallen for me. I don’t want to say I’ve been lucky, but I’ve been very fortunate, taking advantage of every resource given to me. It kind of just happened for me.”
When he grew up in Vegas in the 1990s, the place was hardly a soccer hotbed. “There weren’t enough teams,” Gomez recalled. “There weren’t enough kids.”
His travel team had to play up an age group or two just to get some competitive games. The only reason he got to play at all was that his team was funded entirely by the father of a teammate, who owned a successful business.
If you wanted to try out for the Olympic Development Program, you needed $100 to play in a mini-camp. Gomez, the oldest of five in a family he describes as “very working class,” didn’t have $100. Nobody from a college ever came to look.
“I’m one of many that, for whatever reason, fell through the cracks,” Gomez said. “Not a lot of Mexican-American players were coming up the pipeline in those days.”
But like many fellow Mexican-American kids have since, he found opportunities south of the border through a family connection. His dad knew someone who knew somebody at Pachuca. He tried out for its third-division team for three weeks. It was cold and windy and he was cut. He hooked on with Cruz Azul for a while. Then he signed with Aguilas Blancas in the second division. It was a bare-bones operation.
“It was very difficult,” Gomez said. “I had that stigma of being American. I didn’t have the pedigree that others have.”
He was 18 and stuck around for a year and a half. His first contract paid him about $40 a month. “It got very difficult to see any kind of future,” he said.
Gomez came back to the U.S. and played for the San Diego Gauchos of the United Soccer Leagues. He began scoring goals and was picked up by the Los Angeles Galaxy, where he rode the bench on a team that won the 2002 MLS Cup. He was loaned to the Sounders, then in the USL as well, the next year. He broke his foot on the first day and the Galaxy later waived him.
He went back to Vegas to live with his parents, ready to give up on soccer. The Galaxy called again after a few months, offering a pre-season trial.
“I was really skeptical,” Gomez said. “I wanted no part of it. I was kind of burned out. Soccer didn’t go the way I wanted to.”
He was finally talked into it by his old youth coach, who lived in Manhattan Beach and whom he could stay with for free.
Gomez made the team and got a contract worth $12,650 for the season. But soon enough, Landon Donovan went away with the national team and a few injuries created an opportunity. “They literally had to throw me in,” Gomez said. He scored 18 goals that season on a team that won MLS Cup again, as well as the U.S. Open Cup. He was named team MVP.
Spells with the Colorado Rapids and Kansas City Wizards meandered to a dead end. Rather than take KC’s paltry four-year, $70,000 offer, Gomez signed a six-month deal with Puebla in Liga MX and promptly led the league in scoring. He would spend 5½ years in Mexico, bouncing around seven teams.
He finally returned to MLS halfway through the 2015 season, joining Toronto FC in spite of a bigger deal offered by the New York Cosmos in the second-tier North American Soccer League. His only goal got the Reds to their first-ever playoffs, but he was waived before the 2016 season.
Seattle, the lone team he wanted to go, was also the only one that called. But he had to try out again. Grudgingly, Gomez agreed. He didn’t play much, but the team scratched out its first MLS championship with a series of unlikely playoff wins after a difficult regular season and a coaching change.
Gomez made a career out of being a scrapper. About half his goals in Mexico were headers, even though he stands just 5-foot-10. He lost his speed to a knee injury almost a decade ago but he still found ways to beat defenders. Soccer, to him, was a battle of wills. He liked to troll opposing fans on Twitter, especially when his Mexican clubs played MLS teams.
But for all the talk, and the thoughtful and lucid Gomez never shies away from a good talk, what’s criminally under-appreciated is the success his teams have had when he happened to be around. Especially when you consider that he was a nobody prospect from nowhere – in a soccer sense, anyway.
He won three MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup with the Galaxy and Sounders. He reached two more Open Cup finals with the Galaxy. He reached two CONCACAF Champions League finals with Santos Laguna and won the 2012 Liga MX Clausura there. He reached the final of the 2014 Apertura Liguilla with Tigres and won the Copa MX Clausura in 2015 with Puebla. He won the 2013 Gold Cup with the U.S. And he played in a World Cup, a Club World Cup and the Copa America.
“I have learned a long time ago that the best way to stay in a lineup is to win,” Gomez said. “I learned to do whatever I could to win.”
Yet for his long and trophy-laden club career, winding through some of the bigger teams in North America, Gomez’s national team career wasn’t all it might have been.
He made his debut in 2007, at the Copa America against Argentina. But he wouldn’t be back with the USA until 2010, until just before the World Cup, in which he played in three of four games. There would be another two-year absence before then-head coach Jurgen Klinsmann rediscovered him during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, which he missed because he wasn’t fully fit after an injury. He never returned, ending on 24 appearances and six goals.
Still, he harbors no bitterness. Not about the national team. Not about being overlooked when he was young. About none of it.
“I think I’m very self-aware,” Gomez said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, ‘I’m playing with house money. This is as good as it gets. Just enjoy it.’ It’s gone well. It’s been an extremely fun ride. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.