Herculez Gomez grew up surrounded by the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.
As a boy, he remembers getting up early on weekends to watch games from Mexico with his immigrant parents. Then when he got older, he would drive to the Rose Bowl to see the Galaxy play.
“I had two sets of heroes,” he said. “I idolized Cobi Jones, I idolized Cuauhtemoc Blanco.”
Gomez would go on to play with Jones and against Blanco, as well as for and against the U.S., spending much of his club career in the Mexican league while still a member of the American national team.
That left him with a two-sided perspective on the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, one of the most intense in international soccer. But it’s not his alone. Three members of the current national team — Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana and Paul Arriola — grew from Mexican roots planted on the U.S. side of the border and like Gomez before them, all three play for the American national team and Mexican clubs.
So when they take the field for Sunday’s crucial World Cup qualifier with Mexico at a sold-out Estadio Azteca, Gomez knows from experience they’ll be dealing with emotions their teammates will never know.
“It’s a different feeling when you play Mexico,” said Gomez, who retired last year after a 14-year career that included 24 games with the U.S. national team and six stops with club teams in Mexico.
“When you’re Mexican-American and you grew up in that whole culture, it’s a really special feeling. They’re going to think of their families who still cheer for these teams and what it means for them to actually be in this type of game. It’s something they’re really going to relish.”
Especially given what’s at stake.
After Thursday’s win over Honduras, unbeaten Mexico can virtually clinch a berth in next summer’s tournament in Russia with a win over the U.S. The Americans, meanwhile, are still trying to claw their way to safety in World Cup qualifying, and a victory Sunday would move them to second in the six-team table with four games to play.
“It will definitely be the biggest game on the biggest stage for me in my career,” said Arriola, who plays for Tijuana in Mexico’s Liga MX.
For Arriola, the family ties to Mexico are loose since his great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. four generations ago. For Gonzalez, the connections are far fresher.
Although he grew up in Texas, Gonzalez spent many summers at his grandparents’ home in Monterrey, Mexico, sometimes training with the first-division team for which his uncle Lalo Rodriguez Plata once played. And when the family watched games at home, his parents, Gonzalez said “would always root for Mexico.”
“They still root for Mexico when we’re not playing,” said Gonzalez, who left the Galaxy for Pachuca of the Mexican league two years ago.
Gomez said his parents were the same way.
“To this day they’ll still watch the Mexican national team,” said Gomez, a soccer commentator with ESPN. “The only time they won’t cheer for the Mexican national team is if the U.S. is playing against them.”
So it remains a point of both pride and sadness for his parents that the only two games their son played in Azteca resulted in a draw and a win for the U.S., the team’s only victory in 22 games in Mexico City.
“For me it was extremely gratifying just playing there with the national team,” said Gomez, who was born in Ventura County. “The first time I was at that stadium, I was 19 years old. It was the old Azteca, literally like 100,000 [people]. And I was in a sea of green. I just remember thinking of how small I felt in that big stadium and how crazy it was that all these people were there for that game and how I one day wanted to be at that game.
“Fast-forward a decade or so later and not only am I at the stadium, but we got our first-ever victory in that stadium.”
Villafana, who was born in Anaheim and raised in Mexico before returning to the U.S. to attend high school, said many of his relatives remain split over the rivalry too.
“It will be more emotional for my family,” said Villafana, a defender who started his career with Chivas USA and now plays for Santos Laguna. “I think they will be cheering for both teams.”
Politics could inflame those emotions Sunday. The U.S. team has never been welcomed warmly in Azteca but this year the animus will be ratcheted up by the Trump’s administration’s promise to build a border wall that Mexico will pay for.
“Obviously we talked about it down at the club, with friends and teammates,” said Arriola, who grew up near the border in Chula Vista. “From our side I don’t think it changes anything. The focus is always the same.
“Especially now. Looking to quality for the World Cup, that’s taking up all of our time and all of our thoughts.”
Mexican coach Juan Carlos Osorio said he will try to keep his players — and by extension the fans — focused on the game as well.
“It’s great for the sport,” he said of the rivalry. “But we have to keep it as that. Sports. Hopefully the players on the field will translate that to the fans.
“It’s about winning. But without kicking anybody.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11