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February 23, 2019

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Homegrown soccer star says Las Vegas ready for pro team

Herculez Gomez

Jay LaPrete / AP

United States’ Herculez Gomez, left, and Jamaica’s Lovel Palmer fight for a loose ball during the first half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

Herculez Gomez is the unofficial ambassador of Las Vegas soccer. The former U.S. national team member is inarguably the most accomplished player to come out of the area.

Gomez, 32, was born in Southern California but grew up in Las Vegas, playing for Las Vegas High School and one of the handful of club teams in the valley.

He came up in the Los Angeles Galaxy system in the MLS, and, after several stops in between, was the Mexican League scoring champion while with Puebla in 2010.

Gomez played for the 2010 U.S. National team at the World Cup finals in South Africa, then contributed some key goals in the qualifying stages of the 2014 World Cup before a knee injury knocked him out of contention for the finals roster.

This season he is on loan from his contract with the Xolos of Tijuana and playing with Los Tigres of Nuevo Leon. Gomez still owns a house in Las Vegas, and much of his family, including his brother, MMA fighter Ulysses Gomez, still live in the area.

Is Las Vegas ready for a MLS team of its own?

Yes, absolutely. Vegas hosts soccer and other sporting events, but people are dying for a professional team. Vegas wants something to call its own. Soccer is such a growing sport, and I think the idea of a MLS team would be so exciting for everyone. If the possibility is there, we should definitely take advantage.

I’ve talked on the phone with (the ownership group) and I came away excited about their vision. Those who know MLS well, know what good ownership means and looks like, and I see potential for great ownership with these guys. It reminded me of the people in Seattle, Portland and Kansas City. These are young owners who want to put their mark on the league and make somethings special.

What did you make of U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan off the final World Cup roster?

Landon and I go way back. We were both young kids with the L.A. Galaxy and he’s one of the guys I know the best on that team. He is, without a doubt, the best player U.S. soccer has ever produced.

I was definitely surprised. ... But he was a player that wasn’t there for a majority of the (World Cup) cycle. You can’t hold that against Jurgen too much. He has to make the decision he feels and he believes can best help the team.

How has soccer in the United States grown since you were growing up in Las Vegas?

It’s night and day. When I was growing up we didn’t have these heroes to look up to. The national team I remember looking up to was just college kids. Now the MLS teams are producing national-caliber players. Soccer has grown so much in the United States it’s not just about momentum and the every-four-years boost of the World Cup. I think we are there. Soccer has even become a hipster thing, with articles in the New York Times.

In 2012 when you were with Santos Laguna, you got to play an exhibition game at Sam Boyd Stadium against Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid. What was that moment like for you?

It was one of those full-circle-type moments, even though I don’t feel like I’m done yet. It was so great to play in front of family and friends. It was great to see how proud they are of where I’ve come from and are so proud to call me a Las Vegan.

When I was growing up, Southern Nevada didn’t get the respect it deserved in comparison to California and Arizona. This is a great soccer community and to see it recognized by getting one of the best teams in world in Real Madrid to come in and play our team, and we were the reigning Mexican League champs – it felt great.

How was it for you to watch the World Cup from home this year after being with the team in 2010?

It was tough to watch this year, after being part of the cycle to get the team there. This year was frustrating for me. I had a knee injury and had to work my way back up to form. It was definitely tough to be left out of something so special, but I’m also self conscious of the process for choosing the U.S. national team and developing for the future.

What do you think of the team’s progress under Klinsmann?

What Jurgen has done, and continued to do, is give the young guys a chance. He wants to keep them together, start them off early and give them that responsibility.

Moving forward, Jurgen is looking to the team he wants to lead into Russia (World Cup 2018), and getting them experience. I think my days with the (national) team are done.

The great thing is, I got to see how special some of these young guys coming up are. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch them grow. These kids are good.

Unlike most countries where young soccer stars go to academies and play professionally, most U.S. players play for college teams. What are your thoughts on the U.S. system?

There are two trains of thought on that. U.S. players are not getting their first pro games until they are 21, 22, 23 years old, and that’s not ideal. Around the world, the teams that are producing impact players are way ahead of us.

At the same time the rookies coming up through MLS are a lot more mature than guys (getting their first professional experience) in other countries, where it’s sort of a ‘Lord of the Flies” environment. The kids with the clubs don’t have a lot of rules and sort of self educate, so they don’t handle things in the best way when something doesn’t go well for them.

Mentally, I think our players are more mature as professionals, but when you talk about soccer IQ and upbringing, the U.S. model falls behind.

What’s next for you?

I’m in the middle of a three-year contract, so I don’t know what the future holds. I’m happy here now, and I’m in a great situation.

I’m excited for what comes next after my playing career. I have experience in multiple countries, and I’m really getting to learn the business side of the sport. I’ve been representing myself for the last three years. I’ve come away with so much that I’ve learned, I’d love to apply that to something else after my playing days are over.

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