The legendary journey of Herculez
A nervous Herculez Gomez lined up against Real Madrid's superstar players for their recent friendly. If the difference between skills was as glaring as the contrast in salaries (Gomez earns less than $17,000 for the season), he had no business being there, but he soon forgot to be awed.
"My nerves pretty much ended when David Beckham tackled me from behind," admitted Gomez. "It got me a little angry."
That motivated the young developmental player, who began to press the attack.
"You just kind of start settling in the game and then you start letting it fly. I let one rip from 30 yards out."
It seems a little like a myth - that a player who nearly quit the game would progress to starting against one of the world's most famous teams. The Greek Hercules had to contend with twelve seemingly impossible tasks. The L.A. Galaxy player has had at least as many obstacles in his path.
To begin with, he nearly wasn't Herculez at all.
"My dad fought to name me Herculez," explained Gomez. "He wanted something strong that would stand out. Mom's objections were that it was very out of the ordinary."
His mother's concerns were partly justified.
"I was teased a lot as a kid."
The elder Gomez was also responsible for introducing his son to the game.
"My dad was passionate about soccer growing up. He's the first one that taught me to how to kick a soccer ball."
Those early lessons took place while the family still lived in California, before they moved to Vegas.
The relocation was crucial, as young Herculez met his next mentor when he joined a top club team in that area, Neusport FC.
"I was fortunate enough to play for Frank Lemmon. He taught me a lot about the structure of the game. That's really when I fell in love with soccer."
One of the first challenges Gomez faced was the end of his youth club career.
"I played with them - all the way to U-19, when I was eighteen. We were all like brothers. Probably the worst day of my life was when that ended. I loved club that much. Those were the best moments in my life - just being a kid and playing soccer."
While other Neusport teammates went to college or gave up soccer for careers, Gomez moved on to a try-out in Mexico with the club Pachuca, only to encounter difficulties due to being an American.
"At the time, I didn't have my Mexican citizenship, so I was an American only. Now I have dual citizenship, both from Mexico and the U.S. But back then they told me they didn't have spots on the roster for foreigners."
Fate intervened for Gomez, however.
"There was a guy from Cruz Azul (another Mexican league club) there. He said, 'We've got some spots.'"
Cruz Azul, a top-division club based in Mexico City, had recently moved to their own stadium grounds, Estadio Azul. Gomez joined their second-division team, essentially a reserve team for young players.
"It was an enjoyable experience," described Gomez. "The facilities were awesome."
Training at Cruz Azul helped Gomez identify his strengths and weaknesses.
"I learned a lot of ball control, just to slow the game down. But there were a lot of attributes that I had that a lot of players didn't have there. My work rate was a little higher than most guys there. For some reason, I'd never been considered really fast, but I was extremely fast there. I've never had a great vertical leap, but I was good in the air there."
Gomez later accepted an offer to move to a lower division team, Aguilas Blancas de Puebla.
"It was very different. We trained on a field - it was our own field and it was a beautiful field - but I could literally kick the ball on a goal kick from goal to goal. The air was really thin there, too. It was a humbling experience, but I loved it. The guys on the team fought hard every game."
Frustration was setting in for Gomez, however, as he contemplated his future.
"I just didn't see that team going anywhere. One of the luxuries of being with Cruz Azul, is that on the second team, you still were constantly in the eye of the first division coach. I was young, but I wanted to play first division soccer."
"When they (Puebla) gave me my player pass, I could finally leave. I went to Durango, a higher division team."
At nineteen, Gomez faced the realities of professional soccer.
"I was playing with guys that had families and did this for a living. Even though you don't get paid well, what you do affects them. It made me really think about what I was doing."
Gomez' time with Durango also made him question his career. The lack of opportunity in games was disheartening.
"I was about to give up playing soccer," he revealed. "At Durango, it was very hard. I hardly played at all. Finally, I came down to Vegas for good and stayed with my family."
Destiny again intervened at a crucial point.
"We heard about a division three program in San Diego, the Guachos."
Gomez tried out and received an offer from the team.
"It wasn't great money at all, but my dad and I spoke, and he said, 'If you really want to play soccer, don't worry about the money.'"
Playing regularly for the Guachos helped Gomez find his offensive groove, and he tallied seventeen goals for them in 2002.
The big break came however when the Guachos had a friendly with the local MLS team - the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"We lost pretty bad, like 7-1. But I scored against them and I did fairly well," remembered Gomez.
"Ralph Perez - then assistant coach of the Galaxy - believed in me. He convinced Sigi (Schmid, former Galaxy coach) to sign me."
It was already late in the 2002 season (September) when Gomez joined the Galaxy. He didn't see any playing time, but he was integrated into the practice squad.
"When I signed, three months later we won an MLS championship, so I was thrilled," he stated.
Technically, he was a champion, but without a minute of actual game time.
Entering 2003, Gomez had high hopes. He made the team on a developmental roster, but a loan to the Seattle Sounders quickly went sour.
"I broke my foot in a freak accident, just running on the field, going for a ball."
"I never came back at full strength," admitted Gomez. "By the time I did, it was already too late. We were already near the playoffs and I don't blame Sigi for not giving me a chance."
The lack of playing time left Gomez with another hard choice to make.
"I just had to go, because I didn't think I was going to get the opportunity with Sigi at the time. I went back to San Diego and I played down there and built up my confidence again."
In his quest for playing time, Gomez joined Major Indoor Soccer League's San Diego Sockers.
"It definitely gave a beating on my body, but it sharpened me up in terms of just being stronger on the ball and playing those quick combinations. Those were things I was lacking."
Gomez played in ten games and scored five goals for the Sockers, but the team was eventually dissolved.
"Some things happened financially - the team's been around twenty-something years and all of a sudden, the team just is gone," marveled Gomez.
"At that time I got a phone call from LA. 'Would I like to come out to a camp they were holding?' I said, 'Sure, I'd love to!'"
Despite his excitement, Gomez had some concerns about new Galaxy coach Steve Sampson.
"I didn't know if he was looking for a small player like me. But I felt really at ease when I met him. He seemed like a really nice guy, a very good people person."
Sampson told Gomez he was a long shot to make the roster but offered him a developmental contract. An old friend - his former Vegas coach - also stepped in to help. "LA's not cheap," Gomez said ruefully. "I was very fortunate to have Frank (Lemmon). He lives out here with his wife and they had an extra room to rent."
The low salaries may help keep MLS afloat as a league, but for some of the players, it makes a pro soccer career a tough choice. But Gomez persevered and showcased his skills in the new MLS reserve league games, at one point leading all players in scoring.
At every game, Sampson was there to observe, a fact which encouraged Gomez.
"You're working hard and he sees it," Gomez explained. "It's always good to know that."
When his chance with the first team finally arrived, Gomez' initial move in league play wasn't a smooth one.
"I came in and on my first run I got a yellow card. I was just over-excited."
It's clear that Gomez has overcome the butterflies lately. With five in his last six games, Gomez has strengthened his case for continuing to start. His latest strike in league play came against the New England Revolution off a feed from Landon Donovan, who many thought might replace Gomez in the starting slot after returning from Gold Cup competition. Instead, the two have shown they can work together.
Donovan praised his new strike partner's initiative.
"He's playing really well. He's a guy who just comes and plays hard. He's gotten his chance and he's made the most of it. That's how people make it. As long as he keeps performing, he'll keep playing."
Though Donovan's absence helped give Gomez the opportunity to start against Real Madrid, knowing he earned the chance was a major highlight.
"That's something that I'm never going to forget. It's boosted up my confidence a lot. It was an important game not only for us, but for MLS."
After a recent practice, Gomez flipped through a selection of photos of the Galaxy/Real Madrid match given to him by a fan. He paused at a shot of himself maneuvering the ball around Ivan Helguera.
"That's probably never going to happen again," he allowed wistfully.
In the stands that day for the Real game were his parents. It was the first time they had been able to see him play in a Galaxy uniform.
Gomez admits to a few future goals.
"I'd love to play international soccer. U.S. or Mexico? I think I'd probably have a better shot at the U.S. side, by just being in the league. But I'd never rule anything out. I'm always up for new adventures."
Yet Gomez has enjoyed reaching a personal Mt. Olympus.
"I'm living the dream right now. I was a Galaxy fan before I played for the Galaxy," said the East L.A. native.
"I just can't describe what it's like coming in every day, knowing that I've got this (Home Depot Stadium) to call home. It's unbelievable." He shook his head when he compared his current situation to when he was ready to give up on soccer.
"It's night and day. I was confused, young, frustrated. I've learned the important thing is to keep your head up. Things happen for a reason. I couldn't be happier right now."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org