Las Vegas can be an unforgettable place for the tourists who pour into the city on a regular basis, but in the shadows of the towering casinos and shiny billboards exist plenty of Vegas natives living regular lives, some fighting just to survive.
As recently as 28 months ago, Herculez Gomez was one of those locals fighting to survive. He was facing the harsh reality of the rock bottom of his soccer playing career. Out of contract and facing an uncertain future in December of 2009, Gomez drove around the streets of East Las Vegas in the same Saturn Ion that he drove from MLS stops in Los Angeles to Colorado to Kansas City. He worked out at a local gym and contemplated his future as he stared at a phone that simply wasn't ringing.
"The low point for me was being back in Vegas with my family, driving around in my Saturn On (an Ion that had seen the letter I fall off years earlier) and looking at my bank account, thinking 'what happened?'," Gomez said. "Just the self doubt, having that self doubt. It really was a soul-searching moment, and it's either fight or flight and you have to decide whether you're going to fight."
"In MLS I was never a player who made a lot of money, so being out of contract and not having much money was a tough time," Gomez said. "Financial burden is one of the worst things that can happen to you. I definitely started thinking about life after soccer."
It sounds crazy to think that Gomez thought about giving up soccer considering everything that has happened in the 28 months since that low point. He has won a Golden Boot in Mexico (becoming the first American to do so), played in a World Cup and a Club World Cup, and he has scored 33 goals for four teams, the last 11 coming for Santos Laguna, currently the best team in Mexico.
Gomez credits the support of his family and closest friends with helping him endure the toughest point in a career that has had its share of roller coaster-like ups and downs. A family that never stopped believing in him, even when things looked the bleakest.
"I always believed he still had plenty of soccer left in him when he left MLS and we let him know we were behind him and believed in him," said Gomez's brother Ulysses, a champion MMA fighter. "Even when things were really tough, we knew he would get through it because he's always been a fighter."
That fighting spirit helped drive Gomez into making the most of the only offer that came his way in December of 2010, a six-month contract with small Mexican club Puebla. He scored 10 goals for the team, edged out Javier "Chicharito" Hernadez for the Golden Boot and earnied a place in the U.S. World Cup team that summer.
Gomez has spent the past two years proving that early success was no fluke. He has played for four clubs since moving to Mexico, scoring goals at each stop even when playing time was tough to come by. Another strong stretch with Tecos last fall caught the attention of traditional power Santos Laguna.
The Santos move looked like a risky one, but all he has done is earn a starting role on the first-place side and lead the club's charge to the CONCACAF Champions League Final as its leading scorer. His 11 goals in all competitions since January is his best run yet in Mexico.
"I never came to Santos worrying about whether I would play or not," Gomez said. "I knew it was a good team with some great players but I was confident I could earn a place and the manager showed confidence in me and gave me the chance to show what I can do."
Gomez cites Santos manager Benjamin Galindo with being a major influence in his recent success, not just for the playing time he has given him, but for the lessons he has taught him.
"When you think about the fact he's arguably the most technical player to ever play for Mexico, and you realize the knowledge he has, it would be crazy not to want to learn as much as you can from him," Gomez said of Galindo. "Having a coach like him, who has done it at a high level and knows so much about the game is great.
"People also don't realize how many different ways he uses players in systems," Gomez said. "I've played on the wings and as a target forward, really anywhere in the attack and that experience only makes you a better player."
The biggest question American soccer fans are asking now about Gomez is whether he has shown enough to earn his first U.S. national team call-up since August of 2010. Jurgen Klinsmann has stated publicly that he is watching Gomez, and it is tough to argue that only Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore have had comparable goal-scoring success this year among American forwards.
Gomez is fully aware of the clamor for him to be called up by Klinsmann, but for the time being he still considers himself a former U.S. national team player (even labeling himself one on Twitter). That gesture raised eyebrows among national team fans, but Gomez didn't mean it as a slight at Klinsmann or any sort of message.
"Playing for the national team is an honor and a privilege and I would love to be a part of the team again. But right now it has been almost two years since I've been a part of the team," Gomez said. "If the people who pick the team decide I'm worthy of a spot then I will gladly take that honor and do my best to help the team.
"Until that happens though, I'm focused on my club and I won't spend much time thinking about it."
It shows just how far Gomez has come in 28 months that his biggest problem these days is whether or not he will receive a national team call-up. These days, Gomez is enjoying the financial security of two successful years playing in the high-paying Mexican League. He has traded in his Saturn for an Audi SUV and new Camaro, and rather than waiting for the phone to ring for a job opportunity, Gomez heads into the summer a safe bet to attract attention on the transfer market. He could also spend the summer wearing a USA uniform in World Cup qualifying.
"If he had retired two years ago, his career would still have been a pretty good one," said Ulysses. "He won two MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup, but when you think about everything he has done since then, a World Cup and scoring so many goals in Mexico, it's just amazing to think about."
At some point this summer, Gomez will return to Las Vegas to visit the family and friends who helped him through the toughest time in his career. He will also have a chance to reflect on two years even he could not have dreamed up.
"Never in a million years would I have thought things would have gone like this," Gomez said. "Everything I've been through just makes me appreciate all of it that much more, and it makes me appreciate all the people who were always by my side."