By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — A question to ponder when the Seattle Sounders play Santos Laguna Tuesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals:
Who has come further in the last 10 years, Santos Laguna forward Herculez Gomez, or the Sounders, Gomez’s team for one summer a decade ago?
Back in 2003, when the Sounders were an A-League team playing in front of sparse crowds, Gomez was a 21-year-old forward looking to establish himself after being sent to Seattle on loan by the Sigi Schmid-coached Los Angeles Galaxy.
Fast forward 10 years, and Gomez is one of the best players on one of Mexico’s best teams and is a regular on the U.S. national team. The Sounders, meanwhile, have gone from being a club that was successful by A-League and USL standards, to a club that is successful by global standards, averaging more than 43,000 fans per game last season and becoming the model for what professional soccer can be in America since joining Major League soccer in 2009. And while this season is not starting at all the way Sounders fans would like, they are still one of the final four teams standing in competition that includes the top teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
And even though Gomez and the Sounders are opponents during the two legs of this semifinal — the first of which was won 1-0 by Santos Laguna on a Gomez goal — both can appreciate how far all parties involved have come since Gomez wore a Sounders jersey.
“I was here for maybe two months, and it was probably one of the best summers I ever had,” Gomez said of his time in Seattle, noting that even the weather cooperated. … “I had a blast. Adrian (Adrian Hanauer, minority owner and general manager of the Sounders) and the Seattle organization are top notch. Even back then when they were A-League, it was something else. It was impressive. I’m proud of how far they’ve come, I’m proud of what you guys have established here, because it is something special around the league. I was proud to be a Seattle Sounder.”
As much as the Sounders are tired of conceding goals to Gomez — he scored three times against Seattle in two games during last year’s Champions League semifinal — they are impressed with what he has done in his career. After finding limited success during his return to MLS in stints with L.A., Colorado and Kansas City, Gomez enjoyed a career revival south of the border. Gomez’s strong play with Puebla FC in 2010 helped him earn a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster that summer. And after continued success in Mexico with three other teams, including Santos Laguna, Gomez has established himself as a regular on the U.S. roster and is a near lock to play in his second straight World Cup next summer.
“It’s great to see it come full circle,” said Sounders defender Zach Scott, who played with Gomez on the 2003 team. “He’s one of those guys who has worked really hard in his career, some ups and downs, and finally it looks like it’s all ups for him being on the national team and playing really well for his club.”
During last week’s game, Sounders fans taunted Gomez with chants of “Sounders reject” when he missed a shot early in the game, something he said motivated him a bit. But despite the jeers, Gomez said he got plenty of love from the city he called home for one summer, and he figures he’ll get a warm reception the next time he’s at CenturyLink Field when the U.S. hosts Panama in a World Cup qualifier on June 11.
“I think the reaction I got from the fans was a pretty good one,” he said. “After the game the fans were pretty appreciative. When 90 minutes were over, I became a national team player again, and they let me know how they felt, and that was pretty special.”
Before Gomez returns to Seattle with the national team, he first hopes to break the hearts of Sounders fans one more time to get Santos to the Champions League final. While the Sounders are only down a goal, they are facing a very tough task in Torreon, where Santos has made a habit of not just beating MLS teams in this competition, but blowing them out. But even if Gomez is the enemy for another 90 minutes Tuesday night, people like Sounders assistant Brian Schmetzer, who was Seattle’s head coach from 2002-2008, take pride in his development.
“We take pride in players like Brian Ching, Herculez Gomez and Marcus Hahnemann, guys who have come through this club and eventually made it with big-time careers,” Schmetzer said. “We love those stories.”
Tuesday, however, the Sounders would prefer Gomez doesn’t add another highlight to the remarkable career that, for one summer a decade ago, passed through Seattle.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.