CARSON -- Santos Laguna fêtes its championship Sunday evening at Home Depot Center against Mexico's other reigning titlist, but it's just one in a series of friendlies meant to prepare the clubs for the kickoff to the Primera Division season later this month, nothing more.
It's more meaningful for Herculez Gomez, the L.A.-born, Las Vegas-bred former Galaxy striker who has reinvented himself, to great effect, since heading south of the border 2 1/2 years ago.
Gomez is coming off a sensational stretch since joining Santos last winter: He scored 10 goals in all, helping the Torreon-based club to its fourth Mexican league championship and into the title game in the CONCACAF Champions League, and won a return to the U.S. national team.
Now, after starting in the Americans' first two 2014 World Cup qualifiers -- and scoring a goal in the 3-1 victory over Antigua & Barbuda -- he's preparing for another title run with the Guerreros with a little homecoming.
“It's awesome, right? Who woulda thunk?” he said on the eve of the game against Leon, which is returning to the Primera Division after a 10-year absence following its triumph in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso. “It's a little bit different coming back as a champ, especially what I've been through this last three years. ... All of a sudden a national team player and you're coming back as a champion with one of the more popular clubs in Mexico, and now these people kind of see you as their own, you know? Like a Chicago kind of kid done good.
“It definitely feels good, definitely puts a little pep in your step.”
Gomez is well-regarded in these parts. He made his breakthrough with the Galaxy in 2005, scoring 18 first-team goals in all competitions and winning the club's MVP honor as it won the MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double. He was pushed out to the wing after heading to Colorado and Kansas City, a move that thwarted his development, and found his game again only after moving to Mexico to join Puebla for the 2010 Clausura.
He scored 10 goals, mostly off the bench, to share the Primera Division scoring title, went to the World Cup in South Africa, and made a move to Pachuca, one of Mexico's bigger clubs.
Everything kind of slowed down then: He struggled his first half-season with the Tuzos, finally found his form the second half, then left for strugglers Estudiantes Tecos. He played for the U.S. in the first game following the World Cup, then wasn't again called up, neither by Bob Bradley nor Jurgen Klinsmann.
But a strong campaign with Tecos and an even better stretch with Santos won his way back. Klinsmann brought him in for the camp and friendlies in advance of last month's World Cup qualifiers, and he won a starting job for the victory over Antigua & Barbuda and draw at Guatemala.
Credit for that goes to his time in Mexico.
Gomez says he's learned that “I don't have to be the guy that thinks you have to try to do everything.”
“I had that mentality that maybe I'm not good enough for this or good enough for that,” he said. “But you get to the next level and you realize there are players who do specific things in every position, so if your [team is] carefully constructed and put together on the field, as long as you do your job, that's enough.
“I've always been a good route-runner and had a nose for the goal, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of guys with a better shot. So I think when you put all that and the talent we have behind me in midfield ... if I can just make a smart run, I know more often than not I'll get a chance. If I get a chance, hopefully, good things will happen.”
He made a considerable contribution to Santos, where he doesn't have to be the star, not with the likes of Oswaldo Sanchez, Oribe Peralta, Felipe Baloy, Christian Suarez, Aaron Galindo and Daniel Ludueña on the field. The Guerreros had lost in three of four previous Primera Division finals and to Monterrey in April's CCL final.
Beating Monterrey in May's Clausura championship washed away all of the frustration.
“I'd like to think I had something to do with it,” Gomez said, his smile broadening, “but that's not the truth. The truth is this is something that's been going on for the last three years. This is a club that's slowly but surely been integrating parts, and important parts, and everyone put their own grain of salt in. ... You can't really say you didn't see this coming. This is a great group of guys, great group of talent, beautifully put together, and I'm just lucky to be part of it.”
The game kicks off at 5 p.m. Azteca Amerca (KAZA/Channel 54) will televise.