TUKWILA, Wash. — The soccer rivalry between the United States and Mexico is hard to overhype.
It’s the biggest contest in the region, continually features some of the world’s best players and there always seems to be something important at stake.
But for some, like Seattle Sounders forward Herculez Gomez, it means so much more.
Gomez was born in the United States to Chicano, or Mexican, immigrant parents, who are still avid supporters of El Tri. Gomez learned the game in the U.S., but with Mexican heritage. His favorite players growing up were an odd mix of El Tri legends Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Luis Garcia, and U.S. stars Cobi Jones and Eric Wynalda.
Gomez watched the 2002 FIFA World Cup second-round match between the U.S. and Mexico with his father. Then-20-year-old Landon Donovan scored to make the game 2-0 and sent the United States to the quarterfinals, another U.S. victory after defeating Mexico the year before in World Cup Qualifying and beginning the Dos a Cero lore.
“I remember looking at my father’s face when that happened, and it was one I’d never forget,” Gomez said. “I’ve got a different appreciation for [the rivalry].”
He plied his trade in Mexico from 2010-15, playing for Puebla, Pachuca, Tecos, Santos, Tijuana and on loan at Tigres UANL, often playing for the U.S. against some of his club teammates on the Mexican national team.
Like Gomez, there are three members of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s recent roster who compete in Liga MX: goalkeeper William Yarbrough (Club Leon) and defenders Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca) and Michael Orozco (Tijuana). Paul Arriola (Tijuana), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey) and Ventura Alvarado (Club America) have all been called in at some point this year as well.
There’s an immense amount of pressure to perform in Mexico as an American, and it’s often palpable for the players.
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“You get to a new team and they know your background, they know who you are,” Gomez said. “You almost feel like an outsider, and you have to prove yourself. You’re still a gringo, but you’re their gringo.
“This game comes around and you’re almost on eggshells because you don’t want to say the wrong things, especially in a place like Mexico where the press twists and turns [stories] and really looks for those headlines.”
Gomez competed and started against Mexico twice in his career, each while playing with Santos. He was a part of the historic 1-0 friendly win at Estadio Azteca in 2012, the first-ever U.S. victory on Mexican soil. He also helped the U.S. to a scoreless draw in 2013 to earn a crucial road point in 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying.
“Both games meant a lot to me,” Gomez said. “There are no two bigger teams, and there are no two teams with more pressure on them. Since the early 2000s, the tides have turned and Mexico see us as a huge threat.”
Gomez made it clear that he always wanted to represent the United States at the international level, but he returned to Major League Soccer in 2015 with an even greater affinity and affection for his parents' homeland.
“I’m very grateful for everything Mexico has given me,” Gomez said. “It changed my life. Financially, emotionally, love. I met my wife down there. It’s something I’ll forever be grateful for.”