By Jose M. Romero / @RomeroJoseM
For Fox Deportes
LAS VEGAS – They stood in the foyer of the buffet restaurant at the extravagant Mandalay Bay Hotel, waiting for a pause in the conversation so they could swoop in for a photo.
Herculez Gomez shot a glance at the smiling fans, wearing the green and white of Santos Laguna, the 2012 Clausura champions crowned in May. He politely asked them, in Spanish, to wait until he was done with the interview.
That Gomez, home in Vegas over the weekend to play in Santos Laguna’s friendly against Real Madrid, even had a few minutes to do a one-on-one interview was almost a miracle. There was family to see, appearances to make, routines to stick to, meetings and of course droves of adoring fans who wanted to able to say they kicked it with a Liga MX (Mexican First Division) star forward.
“This isn’t anything,” Gomez said. “It gets nuts.”
Gomez hasn’t let stardom go to his head, it seems. The U.S, national team striker is humbled by the fact that America, his country of birth, provided him a place to begin his dream, and Mexico, the place of his parents’ birth, provided him the place where he is able to live it.
Is it hard to be an U.S. international playing in the country that is U.S. soccer’s biggest rival?
“Sometimes you feel like there may be a stigma, but that goes out the window once you’re there,” Gomez said. “They’ve (Mexicans have) accepted me. It helps that I speak the language, it helps that my parents are from there, but let it be known that you’re still one of their biggest rivals when it comes to the national team.”
And Gomez is USA por vida.
“It’s definitely something that I don’t shy away from. I embrace both my heritages. I understand how difficult it was for my parents to come here and make their dreams come true,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic that for me to make my dreams come true, I had to go there (to Mexico). So in a way it makes me work harder, knowing that I have to prove myself day in and day out. Makes me play with a chip on my shoulder.”
That drive is evident in the way Gomez talks about his career. Soccer has taken him from three teams in MLS to four in Mexico, with a few loans to smaller clubs in between. He’s been traded, benched, sold and loaned out, and uses every situation as motivation.
“Soccer isn’t like the NBA, especially in Mexico. There are sales. So anytime I move to a club, it’s not a loan it’s a sale. That means somebody else wants you,” Gomez explained. “They’re purchasing me. I’ve been purchased three times and every time I’ve gone somewhere else, it’s been a better situation for me. I’d like to continue that. I have a ways to go to get to where I want to be, but every step along the way I’ve proven my worth and I want to continue that.”
Gomez, 30, is off to a good start with the Guerreros this season. He has two goals in three regular-season matches. It’s already been a great 2012 for the Las Vegas resident – he won a Mexican league championship, scored a goal in two appearances with the U.S. national team in international friendlies, appeared in a World Cup qualifier, got to face world power Real Madrid in the city where he grew up – on his dad’s birthday — and even got a day named in his honor by proclamation in Las Vegas. April 6, his birthday, will from now on be Herculez Gomez Day.
Underneath it all, there is a strong sense of family and pride in his heritage, an American success story. Gomez’s parents are both U.S. citizens. He has a younger brother who made his UFC debut this past weekend. The oldest of five children, Gomez is the only one who has ever lived in Mexico and speaks Spanish fluently.
“We’re very much a Mexican American family, like many here,” he said, looking around the Mandalay Bay. “Call us Chicanos, pochos, gringos, whatever you want, but we’re here. We’re just a few of millions and millions that are just like us.”
Gomez said he loves coming back to the U.S. in the offseason, or for whatever reason, and seeing himself in kids and hearing their stories.
“It’s very cool to know that this is a new era,” he said. “It always makes me proud. I’m extremely proud to be a representative, I’m extremely proud to be where I am and come up the way that I have.
“I’ve never considered myself a leader, let alone a Chicano rights type of leader… but it is a great honor. I don’t consider myself a role model, but if it gives somebody a sense of inspiration…”
No wonder being home felt so good. Gomez talked about being around his kind of people, Chicanos, and being able to hear the good wishes from fans while still having some space to go places. That isn’t the case in Mexico, where it’s much more difficult to have a social life.
“It’s almost annoying,” he admitted. “Here they are so excited because they don’t see you every day.”
As for maintaining his place with the U.S. team for World Cup qualifiers and the 2014 World Cup, Gomez knows it will be a challenge.
“The easy part was getting this opportunity. The hard part is going to be keeping my spot,” he said. “Hopefully we can carry this momentum over for the next two years.”