Gomez looks for more with Pachuca

CARSON, Calif. -- Herculez Gomez's performance in Mexico's Primera Division last spring led to a surprise role on the U.S. World Cup team and offers from Europe. Now he's looking to build on it, and with a bigger club.

Gomez, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Las Vegas, scored 10 goals with Puebla to share the Golden Boot in the 2010 Clausura season. A move to Pachuca, one of Mexico's most successful clubs, has the former L.A. Galaxy star looking for something more.

"I've had good fortune winning an individual trophy," he said when Pachuca finished its preseason preparations with a loss to Chivas USA in the SuperLiga. "What I'd like to do this year is win a team trophy."

Pachuca certainly is among the primary contenders for the Primera Division's Apertura, or fall, championship, but the Tuzos are just one of many. There is exceptional depth in Mexico's top division, and more than half a dozen clubs have realistic hopes of parading the trophy in December.

Toluca is the defending champion, Cruz Azul is the club that has come closest in recent years without winning, and Club America and Guadalajara are clearly the popular favorites. Pachuca is the club for Americans without a rooting interest: Gomez is the third U.S. player on the Tuzos' roster, joining midfielder José Francisco Torres -- his teammate on the U.S. World Cup team -- and youngster Marco Antonio Vidal, a Texan acquired from Indios de Ciudad Juarez.

It has been a "crazy" couple of months for Gomez, who burst onto the national team radar with his performance for Puebla, which he joined last winter following five up-and-down seasons in Major League Soccer. U.S. coach Bob Bradley brought him into the group, a goal in a friendly against the Czech Republic secured his spot on the World Cup roster, and he netted another goal against Australia in the final pre-Cup prep. He played in three games in South Africa, starting one of them.

It's been a long journey from Las Vegas, where Gomez grew up watching Mexican soccer on television, practicing the moves he saw in his backyard, and playing for a mostly white club program that he couldn't afford.

"Let's be honest," said Gomez, whose parents are Mexican immigrants. "I come from Las Vegas, Nevada -- not a huge soccer hotbed down there. I couldn't afford the tournaments I went to if it wasn't for my club coach. ... I couldn't afford it. My parents were both working. I couldn't even get a ride for training if it wasn't for my coach going out of his way.

"I wouldn't have played club soccer, and if not for club soccer, I wouldn't be here. It's that simple. I'm lucky. I'm just one of millions of Mexican-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, living in this country, and I was lucky, and I know that."

Gomez played for Las Vegas' Neusport FC until he was 18, and then turned pro. He emerged as a force for the Galaxy in 2005, winning the team's MVP award after scoring 21 goals. He headed to Mexico after playing for the Colorado Rapids and Kansas City Wizards, reinventing himself with Puebla, which moved him from the wing to his natural spot up front.

"I got a chance to show my full potential," he said, "and I know this year there's a target on my back."

Gomez and veteran midfielder Braulio Luna, who arrives from San Luis, must develop chemistry with their new teammates if Pachuca is going to succeed. That was the primary objective in SuperLiga.

"There's still a lot of misunderstanding [on the field]," Gomez said. "We're still trying to find that understanding. It took time with Puebla, and it's going to take time here. But we've got quality players, and anything I can do, whether it's score a goal, make a defensive run, assist -- anything I can do I'm going to do my best to help our team."

Pachuca will need it to compete with the usual suspects: Club America, Guadalajara, Toluca, Monterrey, Cruz Azul, Santos and Morelia.

"Now I'm part of the usual suspects, and it's a good feeling," Gomez said. "It's not going to be easy. No easy games. We're very well aware of the parity, but the cream usually rises to the top, and we're hoping to be part of that."

• América, Mexico's biggest club, has brought back Manuel Lapuente as coach and strengthened its front line by acquiring Vicente Sanchez and Matias Vuoso.

• Cruz Azul, with a legacy of losses in title games, hopes defender Joel Huiqui's return to health can make a difference.

• Guadalajara looks to start this season the way it did the last one, when Chivas won its first eight games, but must do so without departed star striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez.

• Monterrey adds Mexican World Cup defender Ricardo Osorio and returns Chilean Humberto Suazo from a Spanish loan deal, bolstering a side that posted the best regular-season record last spring after winning the Apertura title last fall.

• Morelia's roster grows deeper as the Monarcas seek to improve on consecutive semifinal appearances.

• Santos, which lost in the final on penalties, has the bulk of its roster back and adds Christian Benitez and Rodrigo Ruiz up top.

• Toluca returns nearly everyone from the team that captured its second title in four seasons in the spring Clausura.

And then there are Pumas UNAM, UANL Tigres, Atlas, Atlante, Jaguares and San Luis, all hoping they'll be contenders. What separates those who can win the title from those who merely believe they can?

"I think what I saw last year with Puebla is we had some quality players, but we were lacking a little bit of depth," Gomez said. "As the [season] is going on, and you're participating in all these [outside] tournaments and exhibition games and whatnot, your depth is going to show. And those teams with the most depth and most experience will eventually come out on top.

"There is a lot of parity, but toward the end, those teams start getting whittled down, and you do see the class kind of rising."

Pachuca usually has risen. The Tuzos have three league titles and two CONCACAF Champions League crowns since 2003, and they've reached the final four in two of the past three seasons, losing to Pumas in the 2009 Clausura title series and to champion Toluca in the semifinals this past spring.

How far Pachuca gets this season could depend on how well the Tuzos maneuver through a difficult stretch to start the season.

"We've got the most brutal schedule I've ever been part of," Gomez said. "If we can survive our first six games, I will be very, very optimistic about our chances going all the way. We've got a brutal first six weeks. It's not going to be easy. We've got to right the ship, and we've got to right the ship against six very good teams. It's going to be a big test for us."

Pachuca opens the season Saturday evening against America. Up next is Toluca, on the road. Then it's Santos, Cruz Azul and Monterrey. Guadalajara waits in the seventh "jornada."

"Those first five games are going to be very tough games, and they're going to determine what our aspirations are," Luna said. "The talent on the roster is of high quality. This is a team that can really step up. After five games, we'll know where we are, but this team will be a force to reckon with."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.