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Jul 11, 2013

Gomez's long journey comes full circle

SAN DIEGO -- Herculez Gomez has come a long way since beginning his remarkable professional career in this city 11 years ago.

He's won titles in MLS and Mexico, shared a Liga MX scoring title with Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and played in a World Cup. Yet somehow the veteran U.S. striker finds himself in the same position he was in as a member of the San Diego Gauchos back in 2002, the same spot he always seems to be in.

He has to prove himself. Again.

After Gomez started 12 of 13 games with the first-choice U.S. lineup between May 2012 and March of this year, a knee injury forced him to miss the varsity's last five matches. The team went 4-1 without him and rocketed to the top of the Hexagonal standings, throwing his spot in the lineup in doubt.

Change can come quick in international soccer -- take Carlos Bocanegra, who started the Americans' final World Cup qualifier of 2012 before being dropped from the roster entirely in early 2013.

And when you consider that Gomez, now 31, will face stiff competition from the likes of Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Jack McInerney and Chris Wondolowski between now and Brazil, there are no guarantees that Gomez will still be hanging around next summer.

Not that he seems worried about it.

"I don't really see it as someone's beating me out or anything like that," Gomez said in an interview here last week, a day before making his first appearance for the U.S. in four months and scoring -- what else? -- the winning goal in a pre-Gold Cup friendly against Guatemala. "I see it as I have to keep fighting."

Gomez's legendary work ethic has underpinned his success for club and country, but it's his versatility that has helped extend his career with both. "I didn't play at all when I first got to Santos," said the U.S. striker, referring to former club Santos Laguna. "Then a player went down with an injury, the coach said, 'I'm going to use you as a winger,' and I went on a run where I had 11 goals in eight games. It's just contributing when you get the chance, doing whatever you can do."

Gomez also has been used on the outside with the U.S., but after being rested in the Yanks' tournament-opening win against Belize on Tuesday because of the artificial surface in Portland, he's expected to lead the Yanks' line for the remainder of the competition. That means six games to convince U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has become a big admirer of Gomez after overlooking him early in his tenure, that he deserves to remain a key player.

- U.S. eases to opening win

"Jurgen's given me confidence," Gomez said. "He knows I know my limitations, but he trusted in me, and that's all you can ask as a player. I'm trying to reward it whether it be a good defensive play or putting the ball in the back of the net. If I do those things, I'll keep getting chances."

U.S. defender Clarence Goodson says that Gomez's never-surrender attitude has helped him improve in recent years.

"He's not afraid to put in the work both on and off the field," Goodson said. "He's a guy who doesn't complain and just gets on with things. That's the type of player I want to play with, a guy who's willing to sacrifice himself for the team. And when he has a chance to score, he scores. What else can you say about a guy? He's a top-class player and he's done well for himself in his career, but he's worked for it."

As important as this Gold Cup is to Gomez's immediate future with the U.S., his performances with new team Club Tijuana next season will be even more crucial. His goals in Mexico in early 2010 won him a trip to South Africa under former coach Bob Bradley, and he'll be hard to ignore if he lights up Liga MX in another World Cup year.

Gomez, who doesn't have an agent, was actually hoping to return MLS this summer but never had formal discussions with any team.

"The closest I got was a conversation with Chris Henderson," Gomez said, referring to the former U.S. winger and current Seattle Sounders sporting director.

But Gomez was also intrigued by Tijuana, which seems like the perfect fit. The charismatic, perfectly bilingual Las Vegas native is expected to be a central figure on and off the field for the Xolos, who had been chasing him for a year before finally purchasing his contract from Santos last month. Gomez signed a three-year extension, and he plans to live in San Diego during the season and commute across the border to work like U.S. and Tijuana teammate Joe Corona. "I would love nothing more than to live in San Diego, play in Mexico and, if I'm lucky enough to make it, represent the U.S national team in another World Cup," he said. "I started my pro career here in San Diego, so now to have it come back like this, it's a full circle."

Even if some things still haven't changed at all.

NOTE:

One of Gomez's new teammates at Club Tijuana is 18-year-old Paul Arriola, a U.S. youth national teamer who signed with the Xolos in May and whom Gomez coached when he was a member of the Gauchos. "Me and Herculez go way back, although he might not want to admit that he was one of my trainers," Arriola joked this past Saturday after making his first-team debut and scoring in a friendly against Club America. "I've followed him throughout his whole career and all the success he's had, so it's amazing to be teammates."