Ever-present for a significant portion of U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure, forward Herculez Gomez will miss Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Mexico with an injured knee.
The ailment, which required surgery in early August, had been troubling Gomez for months. He missed out on July’s pivotal qualifiers and then departed early from the CONCACAF Gold Cup. As a result, he’s now facing a challenging autumn. The 31-year-old forward has joined a new team – Club Tijuana, his fifth since heading to Liga MX in 2010 – and has a fight on his hands to regain his place in Klinsmann’s U.S. rotation.
Gomez has a history of rising to the challenge, however, and told SI.com during a recent interview that he’s prepared to do so again. As all eyes turn toward Columbus, Gomez is preparing to re-emerge. In the following Q&A, which is edited for length, the 2010 World Cup veteran discusses his setback and his future.
SI.com: How’s the knee? When do you expect to get back on the field?
Gomez: I’ve had the operation done and I feel so much better. I feel that explosiveness. It’s been about five weeks [since the surgery] and it’s so much more explosive. … I feel like I’m on the right track. I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard, morning and evening, trying to get ready and healthy for the team. I understand what [Tijuana] gave up and what they did to get me here so I definitely want to repay that. I’m a few weeks away, about 2-3 weeks out from training, from full-on everything. Then from there it’s just a coach’s call. Every day I’m getting stronger.
SI.com: You tried to play through it during the Gold Cup.
Gomez: It started acting up again with the national team. We tried a few things and at first it responded in a healthy manner and then it didn’t. So they had to shut it down. … I wasn’t doing anybody any good. I would go out there and sometimes I would do well, like against Guatemala [on July 5] even if I didn’t fell 100 percent, but sometimes you can get by not being 100 percent and help your team and other times you can’t. I just felt like I was cheating my team by doing that. I knew the cuts were coming up and spoke to Jurgen and I felt it was probably best if I just got it straightened out. He agreed. I know it cost me the qualifiers and whatnot, but I need to do what I need to do to be healthy.
SI.com: Tijuana is your fifth club in less than four years. Doesn’t all that movement take its toll? You must feel like you’re living out of a suitcase.
Gomez: I don’t have an agent who gets me moves, things like that. It’s not like somebody’s saying, “You’re going here.” I’ve done things on my own behind closed doors. Everything has been a better situation and what I’ve wanted. There hasn’t been a move that I haven’t wanted….Santos [Laguna, Gomez’ former team] knew they had a year left on a deal with a player who could be a World Cup player. They either had to shore me up or they would have to sell me. And I knew that. Luckily we were all on the same page and I could make the deal happen. I’m excited, obviously. It’s closer to home and that’s exciting. It’s where I want to be for a while. I signed a long-term deal, three years, and I’m excited.
SI.com: Why did Xolos appeal to you?
Gomez: It’s such a unique situation. They have what most teams can only dream of, what Chivas USA dreamed of, they’re doing here on this side of the border. They have a cross-border appeal to two cultures. … Xolos goes and plays in the [Copa] Libertadores, all of Mexico gets behind them. A club like América or Chivas playing Libertadores, they’re not going to get other fans to support them. They want to see their rivals lose. We don’t have that. We have such a strong backing. Not only here, but in San Diego. That’s Xolos territory. MLS can’t touch it. They can’t even come close to it. During game days, I’ll walk from the players’ suite down to the locker room after a game and I’ll get pulled over by Americans -- blond-haired, blue-eyed who don’t speak a word of Spanish, to take a picture. They’re at Xolos games.
SI.com: And there are American players, although not blond and blue-eyed, at Xolos as well. You’ve talked before about your interest in Latin-American player development and the opportunities these kids have might have in Mexico. Was that part of what enticed you?
Gomez: Absolutely. It’s a dual language, dual culture kind of society. It’s a border town and that’s what I am. I finally identify and relate to a team. It’s great, to see all these kids who basically are you and want to get to where you are. It’s amazing to be a part of that. … I may have my faults but I’ve always been a guy who wants to do things the right way and keep working. That kind of work ethic is rare sometimes in athletes and the more younger guys who get the message, the better. That was part of what drew me to this club, the vision of maybe staying here after my playing career was done and talking to them. I think we come from the same place. Who knows what will happen? I’m still open to doing lots of things. But I feel good about where this is going.
SI.com: What’s the mood in Mexico like ahead of the upcoming qualifiers? (Note: Gomez spoke prior to Mexico’s loss to Honduras).
Gomez: They’re definitely walking on eggshells right now. They have a lot of pressure, but it’s pressure they apply from within. People forget how easily things can change. … It’s very important to keep a realistic view of things. I think that’s what they lack down here. When things are going good, it’s way too good. It couldn’t be better. When things go bad, it’s terrible. There’s no medium. There’s no balance and I think if you don’t have that it could be trouble sometimes and I think that’s what they lack. A lot of times they’re their own worst enemies. [The U.S.] needs to keep doing well. Right now we’re sitting pretty but things could change very easily.
SI.com: How does it feel to be watching this all unfold from home?
Gomez: It’s a shame that I was injured and if I wasn’t injured, I would have fully been there expecting to compete. … It’s been an interesting ride, how my life has turned out soccer-wise. I always figured, as long as you give yourself a fighting chance you have a chance. It’s been a while now but I know if I can be healthy I can stay on the radar.
SI.com: Landon is back and playing well, Jozy has been in great form, Aron Johannsson is now the next big thing. There’s a lot of competition up top. Are you worried about your place?
Gomez: That’s fine. That’s the sport. I was that guy, like Johannsson. I was definitely that guy and I understand how difficult it is to make the World Cup because I was that guy who came in without a single [qualifier] under my belt and ended up playing at the World Cup. I’ve been on both sides of that spectrum and I understand right now that getting the job is the easy part. Keeping the job is the harder part.
The great thing is, I’m at a point where I still have that hunger. I don’t need a vacation and if I don’t get that benefit of the doubt, it keeps me alive inside and pushes me to work harder. It’s been frustrating. It’s been killing me. Most times you can work out that anger or you can go and try to show somebody, but right now I have to be patient and everything is bottled up inside. I really can’t wait to get on the pitch.
SI.com: Donovan and Clint Dempsey recently signed big, multi-million dollar MLS contracts. Clubs are spending more money. Does that make a return to MLS seem more enticing or viable for you?
Gomez: It doesn’t impact me at all. It actually makes me happy for the guys not making much in the league. They have a great argument in the CBA [negotiations] for why they should make more. Those are the guys it makes me happy for. Guys like Clint, Landon and Omar [Gonzalez], they’re going to get their due no matter what.
I’ve always known that MLS was getting there. It’s great to see it happening at this rapid pace, where you have Zusi, Wondo, Clint and now Omar and Landon, pretty soon it’ll be Eddie [Johnson]. It’s a trend that was in the works and should happen, so it’s good. It’s moving in the right direction. But it’s no secret that when you live in the States, you’re not living in a soccer country. It’s not a soccer culture. There are pros and cons that appeal to certain players. There are players who want to experience that, who want to be in a soccer country and want to really experience what it’s like to live and die with the sport. I’m not taking a knock on MLS, but if you play for Chivas USA and you don’t get a result, there’s no pressure like if you’re playing for Chivas Guadalajara.