The most decorated Las Vegas soccer player could not afford the $100 youth fee to partake in the Olympic Development Program, and no colleges recruited him out of Las Vegas High. But throughout his professional career, Hérculez Gómez tallied 85 goals in 345 matches over 16 professional seasons. A 5-foot-10 striker, he also scored 6 while wearing the U.S. national-team kit a total of 24 times. The 34-year-old announced his retirement on January 17. He has moved with his wife, Elsie, from Southern California to Bristol, Connecticut, embarking on a television career for several ESPN platforms. He took a break to chat about his journey.
What do you recall about moving with your parents and four younger siblings from Oxnard, California, to Las Vegas when you were 9?
The economy was sour. My parents wanted a change. We got into an Astro van with everything we owned and drove up I-15. I remember going through the Mojave Desert. We got to Vegas; it was 124 degrees—insane. I got my first sunburn.
Is it bad to underestimate you?
I’m stubborn. I refuse to be told I’m not good enough, that I can’t make it. I’m very working class; it’s what I was shown growing up. Like many immigrants who come to this country, both of my parents had to work hard to make something of themselves, to help the family.
How thrilling was scoring your goal—the only one—in the World Cup qualifier on September 11, 2012, against Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio?
A very significant date in U.S. history. A must-win for us. It was a free kick from 30 yards … but I felt very confident. The crowd went nuts. Not the prettiest goal I ever scored, but one that meant the most.
In June 2010, you made your first World Cup start in South Africa in the final Group C match against Algeria. Was it just another match?
No. It hit me as I sang the national anthem. I realized, “Holy shit! I’m starting in a World Cup [game]!” I had built up that moment in my head my whole life. I could hear my own heartbeat! My first oh-wow moment. And we won [1-0].
Were you still floating six months later at the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates (with the C.F. Pachuca team)?
I thought, “Wow, soccer has really taken me here? Not many get to play in a World Cup, and now I’m playing in a Club World Cup in the same year?” Very special. To be in a place on Earth I could never think of visiting? To see that culture? I was in disbelief at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Surreal.
What was the other big double take of your career?
The LA Galaxy had an exhibition with Real Madrid in July 2005. On a counterattack, I pushed the ball by a defender; another one was behind him, so I pulled up and crushed a 35-yarder. [It] almost went in. I backed up, stepped on a player and put my hand out. “Sorry.” I look again; it’s Zinedine Zidane. I [said], “Awwww, I’m so sorry!” One of the best players in the world! [Laughs]
What do you recall about your first professional contract, a $40-a-month pact with Águilas Blancas in the Mexican second division?
Well, next was [the] MLS Development [Academy]; I think my first developmental contract, with the LA Galaxy, paid me $125 a month, and that was gross [not net]! I had some rough moments, but it’s because of those [times] that, when these good moments came by, I really cherished them, and it felt so much better.
You spent almost six seasons, with seven teams, in Liga MX in Mexico, and 11 with five MLS squads in the U.S. Is there a big difference between the two leagues?
They are very different. It’s like comparing the British Premier League, in England, versus La Liga, in Spain, in terms of style. There’s more money, in general, in Mexico; it’s the most in the Americas, behind Brazil, but [Liga MX] might have overtaken [Brazil] by now.
Has your affinity for Las Vegas increased with the possible relocation of your beloved Raiders here?
It’s where I was taught life lessons. It’s where my family still is. I enjoy coming back, [to] see how much it’s growing. This is the perfect opportunity … I hope they can piggyback an MLS team into it.