It was killing Herculez Gomez to be on the bench for Club Tijuana.
Trailing 1-0 in the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against the LA Galaxy, manager Cesar Farias went first to Argentine forward Dario Benedetto and then to Richard Ruiz to spark his attack.
Finally, he turned to the American forward with 10 minutes left to find the equalizing goal. Gomez wanted it badly - you could see as much from the way he played once he was on the field. He went down looking for a call in the 87th minute and was instead booked for simulation. When he got his head on a cross from Greg Garza, he sprung up to request a penalty against Leonardo, the Galaxy center back who brought him down. "I didn't even see it, he was draped all around me, you know?" Gomez said after the match. Like almost everything else lately, things went against him.
Since his move to Tijuana from Santos Laguna, Gomez has no Liga MX goals in 16 appearances. He missed time in the summer with a knee injury that kept him out of the Gold Cup. He then rushed to get back onto the field and scored a hat trick in his first match with Tijuana, a 6-0 win against Victoria of Honduras. The forward later said he might not have been ready for a full return, but the hat trick led manager Jorge Almiron to believe he was ready to go.
Those three are still the only goals Gomez has scored for the team. At times, he's looked every one of his 31 years and as the goals dry up, he's getting less and less time, even in a competition in which Gomez has traditionally excelled. With Santos, he earned a reputation as an MLS killer in the CONCACAF Champions League. He scored six goals in the 2011-12 tournament and three more as Santos was again runner-up the next year. All nine goals came against MLS opposition.
Gomez was hoping to add to that against one of his former MLS teams, but Farias felt he could get more out of Benedetto, a regular starter rested with an Achilles injury, and winger Richard Ruiz. When Gomez's time finally came, he wasn't able to find an equalizer.
"It is what it is. I'm disappointed to get in 10-12 minutes. I think this tournament for me it's always been, I don't know, something just clicks, so I'm disappointed in that," Gomez said.
The reality is that Gomez hasn't been good enough domestically to earn a start in the regional club championship. In fact, his place in the top five Champions League goalscorers all-time might've earned him the cameo from Farias, as his club play hasn't been enough.
It's been a bad time for Gomez's form to lull, perhaps showing why he was so desperate to make something happen in his 10 minutes of action. There's likely still a fourth forward spot on Jurgen Klinsmann's national team up for grabs, and he'd be a decent candidate were he putting his skills on display. Even at the club level, midfielder Cristian Pellerano leads the team in scoring with five goals in the Clausura. Benedetto has a pair of goals, the only other player on the team with more than one, which shows the production from forwards has been woeful.
Gomez could bounce back. We've seen him do it before, bursting back onto the national team radar in mid 2012 after nearly two years out of the setup. He was younger then but never seems to have lost the fire that burns brightest when he's being doubted. The player is confident that a second leg victory could jump start improvement for both him and the club.
"The beauty of it is, it is a two-game series and I've been in this situation before," he said after the first leg. "The second leg is very distinct. Looking to get out in the second leg and be part of something special."
He'll have to get some faith from his manager to see the field, though the fact it will be Xolos' second match in four days could play in Gomez's favor. It's dangerous to bet against a man who has beat the odds so many times, but with the handicappers against him once again, another MLS-killing performance at the Estadio Caliente would be just what he needs.