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He Might Be Punching Card to Big Time

Gomez, once thought of as a fill-in, has the fire to give the Galaxy an edge going into the MLS Cup.

November 08, 2005|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The Galaxy was scrimmaging the San Diego Gauchos at the Rose Bowl in the spring of 2002.

Ralph Perez, then a Galaxy assistant coach, remembers, "It was kind of a cool morning. I ... noticed this kid out there with gloves on and I thought, 'Who the heck's this [San Diego] guy wearing gloves?' And then I heard them call him Herculez and I kind of said, 'Herculez? If he's so Herculez, why's he wearing gloves?'

"But as I watched him play, I saw the kid had something.... That's the thing I've always been impressed by Herculez. No matter how little time you give him, he'll make something happen."

This season, Herculez Gomez, 23, a forward from Las Vegas by way of minor league clubs in Mexico, San Diego and Seattle, has emerged from the ranks of the unknown, establishing himself alongside Landon Donovan as half of a formidable one-two scoring punch for the Galaxy.

Going into Sunday's MLS Cup game against the New England Revolution, Donovan has 18 goals.

Gomez also has 18.

"To be honest with you, and this is no disrespect to him as a player, if you would have told me in preseason, that he would be one of our top goal getters, I would have told you you were crazy," Galaxy captain Peter Vagenas said.

Gomez takes no offense.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't even expect to make the team," he said.

What Coach Steve Sampson expected was a player who could grab a few goals for the Galaxy reserves and, if needed, fill-in on the first team when World Cup qualifiers and other national team games took away established starters.

Instead, Gomez made the starting 11 through perseverance and performance.

He played in 22 of 32 regular-season games, starting 16, and scored 11 goals. He scored six more goals in helping the Galaxy win the U.S. Open Cup.

And his free-kick goal against San Jose at the Home Depot Center put the Galaxy on course to oust the Earthquakes from the playoffs.

"When you look at it, he's scored goals at every single level he's played at," Sampson said. "He's really a great success story."

Gomez has had to fight to get to this point, but the reward could be a call-up soon from U.S. national team Coach Bruce Arena.

"Anyone who scores the kinds of goals that Herculez has scored will get invited in to camp," Sampson said. "I think he's on Bruce's radar."

If so, Gomez will have to learn not only to score goals at an even higher level but also to curb his temper.

At 5 feet 10 and only 165 pounds, he does not back away from confrontations.

Those who knock him down usually find him bouncing back up. And he isn't smiling.

Gomez has had run-ins with referees, coaches and even teammates.

He had five yellow cards in his 22 regular-season games and was fortunate in some instances not to be ejected. Sampson recently had to banish him to the sideline during practice after a blowup with a fellow Galaxy player.

"He and I have had verbal confrontations at halftimes, during games, after games, in practice," Vagenas said. "There's nobody that butts heads more than he and I."

Vagenas is trying to drive home a lesson: Gomez is too valuable to the team to be risking a red card.

Vagenas also recognizes that the combative streak is what makes Gomez dangerous.

"It's part of his strength," he said. "His edge.

"There are times I see him arguing with a referee or a player and I'm thinking, 'What the heck is Herculez doing?' Then there are times when I see him chasing a defender who's 60 yards away ... and I'm thinking, 'What the heck is Herculez doing?'

"So it kind of goes hand in hand.

"Sometimes his energy and his competitive nature may get the best of him, and I don't want to see him get red-carded or get on the bad side of a referee as a front-runner. Especially someone with his style. He takes a beating up there. He's not the most physical, back-to-goal type of player, so he's going to need referees to protect him."

Sampson preaches the same message.

"I think we want to maintain his fiery attitude because I think that's a great strength of his," he said. "We just have to massage it a little bit so that he knows how to be a bit more savvy....

"It's a real balance of not squelching that enthusiasm and that fire and making sure that he doesn't do something unnecessary."

Gomez, who played only five minutes for the Galaxy in its 2002 MLS championship season before being released and having to make his way back through the minor leagues, was signed as a developmental player this spring.

He doesn't earn one-twentieth of what Donovan makes, and instead of owning a house in Manhattan Beach as Donovan does, he rents a room there.

He still is paying his dues, but the future looks promising.

"It's been special," he said of this season. "It's been a magical ride, a little bit of a great run. Hopefully, it won't be just a run, it'll be something that continues for a long time to come."

Perez opened the door that spring morning in 2002, but Gomez subsequently found another entryway.

"The Galaxy has given him a small window of opportunity and he's fit his entire little body through that window," Vagenas said, "and now he's on the other side."

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