Former U.S. international Herculez Gomez weighs in on the present and future of the U.S. and Mexican national teams and domestic leagues.
The 2018 World Cup is less than a year away and for Mexico and, to a slightly lesser extent, the United States, the path to Russia seems all but a certainty. Despite the confidence in qualifying, though, the biggest questions facing both teams do not center on how will they make it to the biggest soccer tournament on the planet, but instead on what will they do when they get there and what comes after that.
For Herculez Gomez, the retired U.S. international with 24 caps and a 17-year career that took him to MLS, Liga MX and the 2010 World Cup, both teams have very different outlooks. For starters, Mexico is competing in the FIFA Confederations Cup, kicking off against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal on Sunday, while the USA's summer will be focused solely on the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“Both the U.S. and Mexico are obviously on different paths, but if you look at El Tri, the target right now is to put on a good showing for the Confederations Cup,” Gomez told SI.com via telephone from Connecticut, where he now works for ESPN. “So I think the tournament is important for them, as well as identifying talent in the Gold Cup. But for the U.S. and Bruce Arena, it's all about maintaining that good form, or the good ideas that Bruce has brought to the group.”
Last Sunday's 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw at Estadio Azteca offered hints into how Arena thinks when it comes to playing tough opposition away from home soil, and Gomez believes his tactics–making seven changes and operating with three central defenders–were a gamble, but a smart one.
“I think it was a calculated risk by Bruce Arena, but I think it was necessary,” Gomez said. “With the tactics that were deployed, you don't want to open yourself up and leave yourself exposed versus a team like Mexico, if you do that they could take advantage of those spaces that are afforded to them and they can really make you pay for that.”
In addition to the head-to-head matchup, Gomez shared his thoughts on a number of topics facing the two nations from a soccer perspective in a wide-ranging discussion:
Breaking through as a dual-national
Gomez’s domestic career has taken him across North America with plenty of success. In January 2010, Gomez joined Puebla from the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) and scored 10 goals in the season, making him the first American in history to win a Golden Boot abroad. Two years later, he won the Liga MX Clausura title with Santos Laguna, becoming the first player to win the MLS Cup and a championship from the Mexican Primera División.
As a Mexican-American, Gomez believes that thanks to the fusion of two cultures, he was able to learn certain attributes of what it takes to be an athlete–something you couldn’t really get anywhere else unless you were a product of an immigrant family living in the U.S.
When he was a kid, he would train with non-Latino kids during the week for his club soccer team, but on the weekends his dad would take him to play in the not-so-tactically-minded Sunday adult league.
“I mean I'm 15 years old and I'm playing against 30- or 40-year-old men, so I learned how to read my body and how not go into certain plays because players were stronger than me, bigger than me, so I knew where I could be effective. So along with club soccer, I got a taste of both, and growing up I think that helped me, I think refined my game. There’s a word in Spanish called colmillo, and it's like that experience of knowing what to do, that savvy or that cleverness about having about your game, and I learned that there every Sunday.”
Youth development and pay-to-play
Gomez is not shy when it comes to voicing his opinions regarding the development of the game in this country. Shortly after USA’s Under-20 team lost to Venezuela at the World Cup in South Korea, he went on Twitter to criticize the team’s inability to reach the finals.
Don't tell me this isn't a failure.. the 🇺🇸 U20's are better than a quarter final loss to Venezuela.... Vino Tinto for Gawds sakes. 🙁— herculez gomez (@herculezg) June 4, 2017
“You know, my comments weren't just about the U-20 squad, but more about soccer development in this country as a whole,” he says. “The U.S. Soccer Federation has more than a $100 million surplus, and then you look at a country like Venezuela and what they're going through, and their political climate, and how these kids are able to not only do well, but dominate their age group–they were literally on the cusp of being U-20 World Cup champions–it's incredible for a country like that to do that, and I ask myself, how can a country like Venezuela do this, and more importantly: why can't we do that?”
In order to elaborate, Gomez harkens back to his Sunday League days and how we was able to learn his craft by playing against older players and uses Venezuela as an example of the same benefits.
“Venezuela’s league implements certain rules in their federation within their domestic league to get their younger players playing–they have to play a certain amount of minutes within that league and play against experience. So having these kids have meaningful games is going help their development in the future.”
Gomez uses 17-year-old Josh Sargent as an example. He has rapidly been moving up the ranks within the U.S. youth ladder, having a productive U-20 World Cup by scoring five goals in the tournament. Only Italy’s Riccardo Orsolini scored more.
“He came from a club in St. Louis; imagine how much better his development would be if he was already in a strong program–Werder Bremen's knocking on the door for him–how much better would he be if he already had that professional pedigree?” Gomez asks.
Gomez is also a critic of the pay-to play system, because it fails to understand the value players from diverse backgrounds by dwelling on the raw aspect of their game.
“We have a country that's so big, so the fact that we’re defining one certain style of play, or saying that a kid doesn’t fit a certain style of play, it's difficult because you have kids who are from so many different backgrounds who may be raw, but have so much to offer. We have many Latin- or African-Americans who play a pick-up culture, so we need to work with that instead of trying to fit it into a system.”
Gomez cites Clint Dempsey, who didn’t quite go through the conventional path of academy development but has still ended up becoming one of the greatest soccer players the USA has ever seen.
MLS vs. Liga MX
When it comes to the MLS and Liga MX brand and how they compare against each other, Gomez reminds us that the Mexican league has been around for almost 80 years, while MLS only began in 1996, so comparing both is not really fair to either. But he is extremely proud of how far MLS league has come, especially since the arrival of David Beckham and how teams have developed since.
One of the comparisons that can be drawn between both leagues is how teams pay such close attention to their communities and how there is a clear sensibility to representing the city.
“In Mexico, they like having players on their team that come up through the system and their fans can identify with–a direct representation of what the city is. And you can see that with teams like FC Dallas, who has such a rich tradition, where the academy eventually becomes the face of the franchise.”
Another example could be said of Tata Martino’s Atlanta United or D.C. United, who do a lot to work with this Hispanic community.
Gomez is an optimist, but he is also a realist, and as a Mexican-American who represented the U.S. at the highest level, he understands that U.S. soccer can only grow and close global gaps if it understand its strengths as well as its weaknesses.