Born in East L.A. to Mexican immigrants from Guadalajara, Gómez was bestowed with the name Hérculez by his father, Manuel, who'd been watching a movie about the Greek mythological hero while his wife, Juanita, endured a difficult labor. (The Greek theme stuck: Hérc's younger brother Ulysses is a UFC flyweight who sometimes wears Gómez's U.S. jersey into the octagon.) Though he hated the name as a child, Gómez, the oldest of five siblings, has learned to embrace it, making a flexed strongman pose his postgoal celebration.
When Hérculez was 10, his seven-member family packed all of its possessions into a Chevy Astro minivan and moved to Las Vegas, where his father found work as a used-car salesman and his mother took a job at the Hilton, ushering at shows headlined by the likes of Barry Manilow. Gómez fell in love with soccer, joining a club team as a 10-year-old, but a future as a professional seemed unlikely—he didn't hit puberty until he was 16, and when he earned a tryout with the Olympic Development Program, his family couldn't afford the requisite $100 minicamp.
Blessed with speed and a powerful shot, if not abundant technical skill, Gómez tried to make a go of it anyway. He bounced around Mexican tryouts for nearly two years in his late teens, then had stints with third-division San Diego, MLS's L.A. Galaxy (where he barely played in 2002), second-tier Seattle, and again San Diego—until that team folded. "I almost gave up on soccer," he says. But then the Galaxy signed him to a developmental deal in 2005—"I made $1,236 a month before taxes," he recalls—and Gómez appeared to break through. He scored 18 goals in all competitions that year as the Galaxy won the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup.
Then, nothing. Slumping on the field, he was shipped from L.A. to Colorado to Kansas City, suffering a torn ACL along the way. The low point came in December 2009. With his contract up, K.C. offered him a nonguaranteed deal worth $70,000 a year. Gómez turned it down. Back home in Vegas, living with his parents at age 27 and driving a beat-up Saturn Ion that he called an "on," owing to the missing I on the nameplate, Gómez thought, What am I doing with my life?
What followed has to be considered one of the most stunning six-month turnarounds in U.S. soccer history. After hiring a stranger off Craigslist to make a grainy highlight tape in exchange for $75, Gómez persuaded the Mexican club Puebla to bring him in on a six-month contract for the 2010 season. There he turned the tables on an old stereotype: He was an American finding success by doing work that his Mexican counterparts found distasteful. Time and again, Gómez made killer runs to the goal, not knowing whether a pass would head his way, until finally Puebla's coach told teammates that they had to reward him for the effort. "I felt like Forrest Gump," says Gómez. "This idiot runs, but he runs well! Play this idiot the ball! That season, every time I made a run, the ball was played to me."
With 10 goals in 15 games, Gómez tied national hero Javier Hernández (now a Manchester United star) for Mexico's Golden Boot, making him the first U.S. player to win a share of the scoring crown in a foreign league. That success was hard to overlook, and a month later, in May 2010, Gómez was named to the U.S. team traveling to the World Cup in South Africa, where he started one game and played in parts of two others. Though he hasn't won another Golden Boot, Gómez has continued to make his way in Mexico, scoring timely goals for Pachuca and Tecos before signing with Santos in December 2011. In each case his new team wanted to buy him in a transfer deal, but Gómez had to think twice about moving to violence-plagued Torreón. Ultimately, he decided that Santos—a well-funded, highly competitive club—was worth the risk, and last May he raised his first Mexican championship trophy with the Guerreros.
Rescues? Mexico does do rescues.
But along the way a funny thing happened. For nearly two years, Gómez couldn't get another sniff of the U.S. national team. As his call-up drought continued into 2012, he finally changed his Twitter profile to read "former U.S. men's national team player."
Hérculez Gómez is not the most creative player to wear the stars and stripes. (See: Dempsey, Clint.) Nor is he the most important figure on the U.S. team. (Bradley, Michael.) But since he finally regained a lineup spot in May 2012, he's been one of the most consistent, joining goalkeeper Tim Howard as the only U.S. players to start each of the 10 games preceding Tuesday's friendly against Canada. "I saw a lot of other players before Hérculez," says Jürgen Klinsmann, who took over as U.S. coach in July 2011 and then left Gómez off the roster in his first nine games. "But the impact he made from Day One was his extreme willingness to do everything possible for the team. He's hungry for goals, but on top of that he knows what it takes to get the job done defensively and tactically. He's willing to sacrifice himself, and his chemistry seems to be really good with his teammates. He's a pure giver."
For that trust, Gómez rewarded his coach by scoring three goals for the U.S. in 11 games last calendar year, none more important than a second-half free kick against Jamaica on Sept. 11 that bent around the defending wall and gave the Yanks a crucial 1--0 victory in a World Cup qualifier.