Today I want to talk about a player who seemingly flamed out in MLS only to resurrect his career south of the border — the enigmatic, veteran 31-year-old striker Herculez Gomez. After the American international played a pivotal part in knocking the Seattle Sounders out of the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday, he once again proved the Bernard Karmell Pollard of MLS dreams in the competition.
“Credit to them, they made it difficult,” Gomez said after his Santos Laguna side advanced to the final. “They pressed, they got their goal, they definitely took it to us in the second half. I said it before, you give a team like Seattle confidence and they’re going to cause problems, and that was the case.”
After netting what proved to be the decisive goal in the opening leg of the semifinal series, Gomez now has nine goals in his last nine matches against MLS teams in the CONCACAF competition. Few players have been as efficient at breaking the backs of American and Canadian clubs than the American in Mexico.
Yet MLSsoccer.com had a piece on April 4 talking about what Gomez had left to prove in his career — especially in the American league. Arguing that he was always improperly utilized by coaches in the league, who tried in vain to turn the goalpoacher into a midfielder, Jonah Freedman asserts that the only real challenge left for Gomez is to return to his home country as another native-born Designated Player and erase the sputters of his earlier time in the league.
The problem, though, is that Gomez has flourished south of the border for several critical reasons:
- The flow of play in Liga MX is much more technical and free-flowing, whereas MLS features a more physical style of play. Gomez, contrary to popular opinion, succeeded well enough during his time in Los Angeles, Colorado and Kansas City to merit more playing time than he received. But it is also hard to deny that his true chrysalis as a premier player occurred because he joined a league that more effectively showcased his talents.
- In his four years with Puebla, Pachuca, Estudiantes Tecos and Santos Laguna, Gomez has played with deeper rosters of players than he ever was able to link up with on an MLS roster. Building synergy with a greater diversity of skilled players, the exposure to the Mexican game has turned the striker into a more lethal finisher and rounded out his skill set.
- He has not had to shoulder the lion’s burden of the scoring load or the leadership at any of his stops in Mexico. Were he to join an MLS roster as a Designated Player, the salary he would command and his veteran status would by default force him to step further out of his comfort zone. Which is good for personal growth, but at the tail end of his prime he has proven that he is most effective when he is able to simply poach goals.
The question also arises as to whether a club would manage to utilize his skills effectively. Would Gomez be able to make more space for himself rather than merely playing the finisher to the set-up men that have dished up well-placed ball after well-placed ball for him to pot in the net? Largely an afterthought at the international level for a US men’s national team that also forces him to generate more chances for himself, the truth is that a return to home soil and the league he fled in 2009 could derail rather than punctuate a career that has blossomed over four-plus seasons in Mexico.
So should Gomez really return to MLS? What tangible benefit would the league gain by bringing him back to America, and would this be able to pay greater dividends than any other public-relations stunt? More aptly, with the chance to play for the CONCACAF Champions League for a second straight season at Santos Laguna, why would Gomez willingly leave Mexico?
This is neither a knock on MLS nor a knock on Gomez. Sometimes players simply match up better in one league than another, mesh more fluidly with the talent in one place than they could in another locale. And Gomez has found the perfect combination to allow his game to flourish, while the league has targeted players that properly fit into the MLS mold.
This marriage, methinks, would be merely a stilted attempt to pander toward a desire for more American-born Designated Players rather than a well-thought marriage of player and league — and both MLS and Gomez deserve better. That said, let’s dive into the rest of this week’s Scrimmage here at The American Pitch…
TAP SCRIMMAGE STARTING XI
This week I shifted a few things around, utilizing a 4-3-3 to accommodate the best of the weekend’s action into the Week 6 TAPS Starting XI. At the back, rookie Clint Irwin earned the first win and the first shutout of his budding career to give the Colorado Rapids the inside lane toward the Rocky Mountain Cup. Against rival Real Salt Lake, Irwin faced a penalty shot for the third straight weekend. This time, after giving up goals each of the past two matchdays, the keeper finally stopped one — against Real’s Alvaro Saborio, no less — to preserve the early lead until the final whistle.
The back four begins with central anchors Matt Besler and Amobi Okugo. Against Columbus, Okugo both locked down the defense but was also instrumental in pushing forward the attack. The center back helped assist on Jack McInerney’s goal and was unlucky to score himself after taking three shots. Besler didn’t do much for Sporting Kansas City offensively, but he was the lockdown presence that prevented DC United from getting more than one shot on Jimmy Nielsen’s goal as KC got the victory. On the edges, Darel Russell scored the late equalizer for Toronto FC against Dallas from the right side, while on the left 2012 SuperDraft pick Hunter Jumper earned his first start for the Chicago Fire, earning an assist and ably helping to bottle up the wings against the Red Bulls as Chicago nabbed their first win of 2013.
The midfield takes a few liberties, but these players all earned their positions on the merits of their play. On the left side of the midfield, Toronto’s Justin Braun played just 17 minutes in relief of John Bostock. In that time the midfielder scored Toronto’s first goal, assisted on Russell’s equalizer and generally turned pulled the momentum out from under Dallas to steal a point for his club. In the middle, Andrew Jacobsen was the linchpin that allowed Dallas to build up that two-goal lead against the Reds in the first place, scoring the opening goal and showing an amazing work rate for the Toros. And after scoring the tying goal and assisting on both the game winner and the insurance marker for the Fire, any Starting XI would do a disservice to itself to exclude Chicago’s Dan Paladini.
Thus we have a three-man front, with Portland’s strikeforce bookending Chicago’s supersub. Ryan Johnson scored both Timbers goals as Portland earned their first win of 2013 over Houston, but in many ways it was his partner wide up front that was the true star of the match. Darlington Nagbe, who was a favorite of new Portland head coach Caleb Porter when both were at the University of Akron, finally showed his truest potential as he dictated the flow of the match for long stretches. And completing the starting side this week is Chicago’s Maicon Santos, who entered the match for the Fire in relief of Sherjill MacDonald and promptly showed a finishing prowess matched by few others in the league. In 27 minutes the Brazilian took four shots, scored two goals and generally destroyed what little hope New York had of earning even one point in the Windy City.
TAP SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE
Some things have dramatically shifted this week after Sporting Kansas City became the first team to knock off the Montreal Impact this weekend. Only one team remains unbeaten in MLS play in 2013, yet that team finds itself behind the two league leaders. Let’s dive in further and look at this week’s TAPS Top Five:
- FC DALLAS (4-1-1/+3) – The Toros failed to win for the first time in four weeks, but they still walked away from Canada with a point after Toronto FC’s late comeback. Despite the draw, Dallas still leads the Western Conference and can further prove their position this weekend in a home match against the Galaxy.
- MONTREAL IMPACT (4-1-0/+2) – Suddenly a Montreal team that topped everybody’s lists during their four-match winning streak is now plummeting in those same estimates. But the Impact still lead the East, they have a match in hand still over Sporting Kansas City (the only team to beat them so far), and the same collection of players that excited such optimism still plays in Quebec. A match against Columbus this weekend offers the opportunity to remind people what they saw in the club that first month of the season before losing to last year’s conference champ.
- LOS ANGELES GALAXY (2-0-2/+5) – It is hard to argue against the Galaxy, which are still the only team left to lose a game in MLS play this season. But the fact that they are one of three teams who have yet to play a fifth match also makes it hard to argue for them with such a small sample size. Is this club really good enough to win a third straight MLS Cup? The return of Landon Donovan makes them a much more dangerous side, especially once he gets up to speed, but will this club continue to scrape by against the Torontos of the league?
SPORTING KANSAS CITY (3-1-2/+4) – Last year’s Eastern Conference regular-season champs are in my Top 5 for the first time this season… though I have them far lower than most, who are ready to vault them to the top spot. Yes, Sporting knocked off Montreal two weeks ago and backed it up with a win over DC United this past weekend. Kansas City is also the team that couldn’t score a goal against either Chicago or New England in the preceding weekends. Before that they split against Philadelphia and Toronto. They’re the soundest defensive squad, but offensively they’re not the same machine as last season.
- CHIVAS USA (3-1-1/+3) – The Goats took a break last week, yet they still sit second in the West behind Dallas despite the rest. Chelis has built a team that is tenacious, fighting to the final minute for every possible point. They could easily swap spots with their crosstown rival, who they drew 1-1 on St. Patrick’s Day as part of their four-match unbeaten streak. Other than an opening-day loss to Columbus, Chivas USA have fired on all cylinders to start their season and are positioned to play their way into the postseason for the first time since 2009. They face Colorado at the Home Depot Center this weekend with a good chance to consolidate their spot in the standings.
The American drought in the CONCACAF Champions League continues for another season as both the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders failed to finish off their Mexican opponents in the semifinals. So, in a rematch of last season’s championship pairing, Monterrey and Santos Laguna will square off on April 24 and May 1 in the two-leg final. Regardless of who wins, Liga MX will claim the trophy for the eighth straight season.
The question is not whether American teams can be competitive in the competition — Real Salt Lake was in the final two years ago against Monterrey, and both DC United (1998) and the Galaxy (2000) won the tournament when it was in its Champions Cup format. The question is rather how much influence MLS teams should put on the competition. Like the top clubs in Europe, the tournament plays out during the season and forces squads to go deeper into their rosters to remain fresh for all levels of competition. But unlike those top-flight squads, or even Mexican clubs for that matter, a MLS team that enjoys added revenue from intercontinental play cannot capitalize on that increased income to invest in a deeper, stronger roster due to the salary cap restrictions.
So on one hand, fans can take pride in the fact that at least one league club has reached the semifinals of the competition in each of the past three seasons. On the other hand, the reality is that the top clubs in the Mexican league (and even the Saprissas and Heredianos and Xelajus of the other Central American countries) have at least the potential to outspend American clubs due to the comparative lack of restrictions on signing. Is it worth it for an American (or Canadian) club to burn their roster out early in the season hoping to claim continental supremacy? Is a club like Seattle worse off for the wear of their deep run in the tournament, or can a team under such restrictions succeed on both fronts as Los Angeles seems to be doing so far?
For a thirteenth straight season the MLS will fail to hoist CONCACAF’s highest club honors. The odds are that we will see a victory before another thirteen have passed. But whether that will prove beneficial or detrimental long-term to that club remains to be determined.
(The top three matches on my radar next weekend)
- LOS ANGELES @ DALLAS – The top two teams in the West square off against one another in Texas. Los Angeles cannot take over first place in the conference with a victory, but they can make up three points while still holding two matches in hand. For Dallas, this is an opportunity to legitimize the progress the team has made early in the 2013 season against the standard bearer for the league. Will Los Angeles be fatigued from their midweek CONCACAF Champions League match against Monterrey, or will the Galaxy rebound to remain unbeaten in MLS play?
- COLUMBUS @ MONTREAL – The Impact have fallen hard after suffering their first defeat of 2013, everyone leaping off the bandwagon after just one listless performance. If Montreal continues to look as they did against Sporting two weeks ago, the goodwill of the first month could quickly unravel. Visiting Columbus is hoping for their fourth straight unbeaten match in this trip north and three points that would solidify their position in the top five in the East. This battle of current contenders could be a preview of a playoff matchup in the fall.
- CHICAGO @ HOUSTON – Can the Dynamo extend their 34-match home unbeaten streak when the Fire visit BBVA Compass Stadium? Houston suffered a mighty setback last weekend, getting shut out in Portland as the Timbers won their first match of the season. They’ll be squaring off against another squad that proved its hunger last weekend, as Chicago also claimed their first win of the season over the visiting New York Red Bulls. Now the Fire must return to the road hoping to continue their slow climb out of the Eastern cellar in one of the toughest venues in the country for an opposing team to play… will this be #35 for Houston?
Topics: Amobi Okugo, Andrew Jacobsen, Champions League, Chicago Fire, Chivas Usa, Clint Irwin, Columbus Crew, Concacaf, Dan Paladini, Darel Russell, Darlington Nagbe, Fc Dallas, Herculez Gomez, Houston Dynamo, Hunter Jumper, Justin Braun, Los Angeles Galaxy, Maicon Santos, Matt Besler, MLS, Montreal Impact, Ryan Johnson, Sporting Kansas City