You should defer nonessential travel to the state of Coahuila.... Transnational criminal organizations continue to compete for territory.... The cities of Torreón and Saltillo have seen an increase of violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping and armed carjacking.
—U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT WARNING ON TRAVEL IN MEXICO
Midnight in Torreón. It's eerily quiet in the streets of what one respected think tank has deemed the seventh-most dangerous city in the world. Hérculez Gómez eases his black Audi SUV with its three passengers onto the road. Life is good for Gómez these days. The 30-year-old forward is scoring goals for Santos Laguna, one of the top clubs in Mexico. He has started 10 straight games for the U.S. national team, which begins the final round of qualifying for World Cup 2014 on Feb. 6 in Honduras. And he has just left a birthday dinner at an upscale pizza restaurant for teammate Marc Crosas, a pleasant gathering that includes a few Santos players and their families.
But outside the restaurant is a different story. Torreón is on the front lines of a drug war that has killed nearly 60,000 people in Mexico since the government began deploying troops to fight the cartels six years ago. Here, even the Starbucks employ armed guards. In August 2011 a game between Santos and Monarcas Morelia at Torreón's Estadio Corona had to be suspended when a gun battle outside the stadium sent players and fans scurrying for cover.
February 4, 2013
And so Gómez takes precautions. He bypasses the city's bars and nightclubs. He lives in one of Torreón's secure gated communities. And he stays away from the local news and area papers, the better to avoid the gruesome parade of dead bodies. This siege mentality draws him closer to his teammates, a small group he knows he can trust. "Regardless of how well things are going on a personal level, you're still in a war zone," says Gómez, who joined Santos a little over a year ago. "But as crazy as it sounds, Torreón has grown on me. For all its [problems], I've never had one bad thing happen to me here, and I've met some great people."
Yet there are still moments that give Gómez pause. Like the time he was dining with friends at an outdoor eatery and the crowd scattered, taking cover inside at the sound of what turned out to be fireworks. Tonight some of Gómez's teammates were late for the pizza dinner because they'd heard shots had been fired not far from the restaurant. And now Gómez is anxiously checking his rearview mirror: A car is approaching closely, its headlights turned off. Gómez's gaze darts to the side mirror, searching for the second car that, he has been warned, often comes with carjackings. But there is none. And then he floors it.
The lurker doesn't give chase. Everyone takes a deep breath, and Gómez drops off a passenger at a nearby hotel. In the end, it was probably nothing. But that moment of not knowing is, in itself, something. "You assume the worst," he later explains. "It's a feeling I've only had falsely, but because of the situation it's a true feeling. Before I got here, it's a feeling I'd never had before."
Rescues? Mexico doesn't do rescues. "They're unheard of here, even though dogs are all over the place," Gómez says one day while driving through Torreón, the Mad Max landscape overrun with dust storms called la lluvia lagunera, or Laguna rain. But Gómez is an outsider, and over the span of a week in late December he kept spotting an emaciated stray dog—one part Akita, five parts mutt, he jokes—wandering the grounds of his team's sparkling new stadium grounds. Why not bring the dog home?
A few weeks later, after an array of shots at the vet, a healthy Ronnie—named after Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo—is a fixture at Gómez's swank four-bedroom bachelor pad. "This dog is awesome," he says, rubbing Ronnie's neck. "He must have been somebody's because he's housebroken and pretty obedient—but he was on the streets for a while."
Rejection, persistence, salvation. Ronnie's tale echoes Gómez's own unlikely Mexican rescue story: He went from being an MLS afterthought who never made more than $55,000 a year in the U.S. to a Mexican scoring champion who earns 10 times as much these days.
Born in East L.A. to Mexican immigrants from Guadalajara, Gómez was bestowed with the name Hérculez by his father, Manuel, who'd been watching a movie about the Greek mythological hero while his wife, Juanita, endured a difficult labor. (The Greek theme stuck: Hérc's younger brother Ulysses is a UFC flyweight who sometimes wears Gómez's U.S. jersey into the octagon.) Though he hated the name as a child, Gómez, the oldest of five siblings, has learned to embrace it, making a flexed strongman pose his postgoal celebration.
When Hérculez was 10, his seven-member family packed all of its possessions into a Chevy Astro minivan and moved to Las Vegas, where his father found work as a used-car salesman and his mother took a job at the Hilton, ushering at shows headlined by the likes of Barry Manilow. Gómez fell in love with soccer, joining a club team as a 10-year-old, but a future as a professional seemed unlikely—he didn't hit puberty until he was 16, and when he earned a tryout with the Olympic Development Program, his family couldn't afford the requisite $100 minicamp.
Blessed with speed and a powerful shot, if not abundant technical skill, Gómez tried to make a go of it anyway. He bounced around Mexican tryouts for nearly two years in his late teens, then had stints with third-division San Diego, MLS's L.A. Galaxy (where he barely played in 2002), second-tier Seattle, and again San Diego—until that team folded. "I almost gave up on soccer," he says. But then the Galaxy signed him to a developmental deal in 2005—"I made $1,236 a month before taxes," he recalls—and Gómez appeared to break through. He scored 18 goals in all competitions that year as the Galaxy won the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup.
Then, nothing. Slumping on the field, he was shipped from L.A. to Colorado to Kansas City, suffering a torn ACL along the way. The low point came in December 2009. With his contract up, K.C. offered him a nonguaranteed deal worth $70,000 a year. Gómez turned it down. Back home in Vegas, living with his parents at age 27 and driving a beat-up Saturn Ion that he called an "on," owing to the missing I on the nameplate, Gómez thought, What am I doing with my life?
What followed has to be considered one of the most stunning six-month turnarounds in U.S. soccer history. After hiring a stranger off Craigslist to make a grainy highlight tape in exchange for $75, Gómez persuaded the Mexican club Puebla to bring him in on a six-month contract for the 2010 season. There he turned the tables on an old stereotype: He was an American finding success by doing work that his Mexican counterparts found distasteful. Time and again, Gómez made killer runs to the goal, not knowing whether a pass would head his way, until finally Puebla's coach told teammates that they had to reward him for the effort. "I felt like Forrest Gump," says Gómez. "This idiot runs, but he runs well! Play this idiot the ball! That season, every time I made a run, the ball was played to me."
With 10 goals in 15 games, Gómez tied national hero Javier Hernàndez (now a Manchester United star) for Mexico's Golden Boot, making him the first U.S. player to win a share of the scoring crown in a foreign league. That success was hard to overlook, and a month later, in May 2010, Gómez was named to the U.S. team traveling to the World Cup in South Africa, where he started one game and played in parts of two others. Though he hasn't won another Golden Boot, Gómez has continued to make his way in Mexico, scoring timely goals for Pachuca and Tecos before signing with Santos in December 2011. In each case his new team wanted to buy him in a transfer deal, but Gómez had to think twice about moving to violence-plagued Torreón. Ultimately, he decided that Santos—a well-funded, highly competitive club—was worth the risk, and last May he raised his first Mexican championship trophy with the Guerreros.
Rescues? Mexico does do rescues.
But along the way a funny thing happened. For nearly two years, Gómez couldn't get another sniff of the U.S. national team. As his call-up drought continued into 2012, he finally changed his Twitter profile to read "former U.S. men's national team player."
Hérculez Gómez is not the most creative player to wear the stars and stripes. (See: Dempsey, Clint.) Nor is he the most important figure on the U.S. team. (Bradley, Michael.) But since he finally regained a lineup spot in May 2012, he's been one of the most consistent, joining goalkeeper Tim Howard as the only U.S. players to start each of the 10 games preceding Tuesday's friendly against Canada. "I saw a lot of other players before Hérculez," says J√ºrgen Klinsmann, who took over as U.S. coach in July 2011 and then left Gómez off the roster in his first nine games. "But the impact he made from Day One was his extreme willingness to do everything possible for the team. He's hungry for goals, but on top of that he knows what it takes to get the job done defensively and tactically. He's willing to sacrifice himself, and his chemistry seems to be really good with his teammates. He's a pure giver."
For that trust, Gómez rewarded his coach by scoring three goals for the U.S. in 11 games last calendar year, none more important than a second-half free kick against Jamaica on Sept. 11 that bent around the defending wall and gave the Yanks a crucial 1--0 victory in a World Cup qualifier.
For someone who plays the glamour position of center forward, Gómez has an outsized appetite for unglamorous tasks: high-pressure defending, constant movement and hustle plays that change games. A perfect example came in a must-win qualifier against Guatemala last October. With the U.S. trailing 1--0 early on, most players would have given up on a ball that was rolling toward the touchline for an opposing goal kick. Instead, Gómez raced to the spot, fought off a defender and won a corner. Carlos Bocanegra scored off the ensuing kick, keying a 3--1 U.S. rout. The spark for the comeback was an effort that could only be described as Herculean.
"If I'm constantly buzzing and being a pest, things are going to open up for guys who are good on the ball, like Clint, or open up channels that Michael can get into," Gómez explains. "If I do more work on the defensive side, Clint can concentrate on the offensive side, which is where we really need him. I know I have that motor. In order to keep having these opportunities, I need to kill myself every game."
Is Gómez good enough to lead the U.S. frontline at World Cup 2014 in Brazil? Maybe. He'll get plenty of competition for playing time from Jozy Altidore, the 23-year-old striker who has 15 goals in the Dutch league for AZ Alkmaar.
But Brazil is too far away to think about right now, what with the U.S. scheduled for 10 World Cup qualifiers in 2013, including daunting road trips in the next six weeks: first to Honduras and then—the one on Gómez's mind—to Mexico, at Estadio Azteca, on March 26.
"If I'm lucky enough to be on that field ... I couldn't tell you what the emotion would be like," says Gómez. "It's a special game for me, not only because of my heritage but because I play in this league. There's nobody that wants to win that game more than I do, and for lack of a better term, I'll be in the crossfire."
For once, it's a crossfire Gómez is happy to join.
"I felt like Forrest Gump," Gómez says of his early days at Puebla. " 'This idiot runs, but he runs well! Play this idiot the ball!'"
For Grant Wahl's reactions to the U.S. friendly against Canada and the Feb. 6 World Cup qualifier against Honduras visit SI.com/mag