On Tuesday, March 5, the Houston Dynamo will host Liga MX club Santos Laguna, in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The match will be the first of a two leg home and home series. The return leg will be played on March 13 in Estadio Corona in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico.
Dynamo fans may not be extremely familiar with Santos, but most Houston, Major League Soccer, and American soccer fans are familiar with one of their star players. United States Men's National Team striker Herculez Gomez has been a part of Los Guerreros since December 2011.
Gomez, who has played in the Mexican first division since 2010, has been a regular contributor for Santos - both in league and international play. Over the years, he has seen a tremendous amount of success for Santos and is one of the most dangerous players the Dynamo will be defending against in the quarterfinal series.
I spoke with Herculez shortly before Santos' weekend game against Jaguares de Chiapas and asked him about a number of topics. He shares his opinion on what could be the reason for a gap between the MLS and Liga MX clubs in international competition, talks about Houston's home dominance, his own team's tactics, a dangerous teammate, and whether orange would be a good fit for him in the future.
Mexican Dominance in CCL
In the last seven years, the CONCACAF tournament has crowned a Mexican club as champions. In the last ten years, Real Salt Lake (2010-11) is the only MLS club to advance to a final. Mexican soccer fans attribute the success to a superior league - but is MLS really that behind in terms of competition?
I asked Herculez about the gap between the two countries in this tournament specifically.
"When you talk about the gaps, I think the most glaring thing is depth.
When you talk about the depth that you have, a lot of that has to do with payroll. If you have a higher payroll, you have more quality and you have a deeper team. We don't have to worry and deal with salary caps. That's just an unfortunate truth. MLS does.
We have maybe player 1-18 step up and there isn't much of a drop off in first team football. I think when you're playing in the MLS, if player 14-20 is playing, there is going to be a bit of drop off from the level of their first team football.
That's something to take into account."
As for specifically taking on the Houston Dynamo, he added:
"When you talk about history and records, all that stuff is meaningless.
At the end of the day, records are made to be broken, and past doesn't mean anything.
That being said, we're hoping that's not the case against Houston.
We're very excited at the opportunity to be in the quarterfinals again and hopefully make another run.
I've seen plenty of good MLS teams take it to Liga MX teams or other teams around this continent. We're not taking them lightly."
The Dynamo haven't lost a competitive match in BBVA Compass Stadium since its opening. While it's nice to be unbeaten, historically the Dynamo have been a tough opponent at home long before their new home was built. With Gomez playing a number of years in MLS prior to joining Liga MX, I asked him about his thoughts on why it's so tough to leave Houston with a result for a road team.
"I haven't had the opportunity to play against them at their new stadium, but it's still the same team. So same mentality. Over the years maybe the players have changed. The mentality and that kind of aura they have about themselves, team spirit has been the same.
They're very difficult to play against. Dom's a very good coach. I think he drills it and tells them this has to be a fortress, it's gotta be their home fortress.
I remember when they played at Robertson it was tight confines. It was very difficult to get any type of wide field possession. And they defend very well. They run, they pressure. They do a very good job of making it difficult for their opponent.
It's impressive that they are still undefeated in their new stadium. That speaks volumes of how important it is for them to get points at home and how much they put into those home games.
From our standpoint, our view, we know what we're getting in to. We know it's going to be a battle. And we've been in this position before."
Gomez went on to talk about how these international tournaments bring out the best in both clubs because there is more on the line than just points in the regular season. Much more.
"When you bring up form - club form and league form are two completely different forms. There's a different setting for these games.
And you get up for these games.
At the end of the day, you're representing a country, you're representing a league, you're trying to be the best in that continent.
It's about pride.
I guarantee you there's gonna be some hard tackles, some guys in each other's face, there's going to be a willingness to not lose. To fight for that loose ball, or that ball that might have been gone, that usually you'd give up on - you won't give up on in this game. And those are important things to note."
Tactically, Santos could be called similar to last season's Houston Dynamo. Their formation can vary from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 depending on their opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
"When you look at our tactical formations, they vary from a 4-4-2 to 4-3-3. It all depends on the opponent, it all depends on who we have available, who's on the pitch. The coach has done a very good job at implementing those systems regarding personnel and the opponent."
When it comes to the match against the Dynamo, only time will tell whether Santos fields a group of starters or reserves or what type of formation they'll line up in. Gomez sees a few similarities in both clubs and knows that Tuesday's result isn't the end of this series.
"I still don't know who we'll field, what formation we'll be in. But we do cater to what we have in front of us. Without giving too much away, we do have a similar style of attack and defensively this team has changed so much.
I think we're one of the best defenses right now in Liga MX.
That all starts with the way we pressure up front, the way we move and close down gaps and keep those lines compact and make it difficult for our opponent.
It's going to be a battle, no doubt about it.
It's going to be a tactical battle, a physical battle, and it's gonna be a 180 minute battle. It's important to remember the result in Houston isn't as important as the second result. We're definitely aware of that, this isn't our first rodeo."
With the Dynamo holding on to an unbeaten record, I asked Gomez about whether Santos would be content leaving Houston with a draw and heading home even.
"In these types of tournaments, you don't hope for a draw but yeah if something like that comes about, you'll take it. We realize we're playing a good team. They're in the quarterfinals for a reason. It doesn't matter who they fielded in the group stage.
I know some of these guys have never played in an international tournament - quarters or semis or finals, on the road in a hostile environment. And it could be something huge for us, and definitely weighs in our favor.
We'll use anything we can to advance.
We've got, I feel, a very good understanding of what this tournament is about. We're excited."
Multiple Threats for Santos
Aside from Gomez, Santos boasts a number of threats. In CCL play, Gomez and Columbian international Carlos Darwin Quintero have combined for 14 goals (and counting) over the last two tournaments. I asked him about what Quintero brings to the club and what type of impact he has had on Santos' success over his years in Torreon.
"If I'm being completely honest, Darwin is probably one of the most talented players I've ever had the opportunity of stepping on the field with. He's that good.
He's just on a different level because he can do certain things because he has that unpredictableness about him, that flair. The guy is a game changer, he can really just take a game over."
Who is Santos?
Many Dynamo fans haven't heard of Santos Laguna, or only know Herculez Gomez, Oswaldo Sanchez, or Oribe Peralta. But similar to the Houston Dynamo, Santos has been one of the most consistent Mexican clubs in both league and international play in recent years.
I asked Gomez what he would tell the avid MLS fan or Houstonian that doesn't have an understanding of the Dynamo opponent in the CCL to raise awareness and interest.
"You're talking about two of the most regular teams in each of the respective leagues.
Santos is by far one of the most regular teams in Liga MX. Overall, in their last 5 years, 7 finals and they've been in 5. We've won one. We've been in a CONCACAF final as well. We're constantly in the playoffs, constantly looking for finals. We're knocking on that door. We've got a great following. We consider ourselves one of the big clubs in Mexico as far as results and fans.
I think Houston is about the same. Houston is one of the most regular teams. A team that's playoff bound. They get in the playoffs and cause havoc and they make the finals. Regardless of whether they win or not, they're a dangerous team to face. When things are on the line, they're one of the teams that come out on top.
These are two very similar teams in that aspect. I'm expecting a great series and hopefully the series lives up to it so the fans can get a good show."
Could Herc be Forever Orange
Finally, I couldn't let Gomez go without bringing up the question that nearly every Dynamo fan would want to ask if given the opportunity. During our conversation, he often praised Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo work ethic and accomplishments. That made me wonder if an MLS return was in Gomez' future at some point, would he consider Houston to be a good fit for him professionally, tactically, and personally?
"Absolutely. Houston is a quality team, it's a quality city. I love Texas. If something right came along, I'd be excited, I'd be ecstatic.
Right now, I don't want to get a head of myself. It'd be so great to come back to where it all started and go from there. I'm definitely in a different stage of my life. I'm not the same player as I was when I left MLS. I'm looking forward to seeing what type of player I could be in MLS when I get back."
While the Dynamo will have their hands full with the likes of Gomez, Quintero, and Peralta, they have also been down this road before and hopefully can learn from those mistakes. In the not so distant past, Houston held a 2-0 lead over Pachuca after the first leg in Houston during the 2007 Champions League, only to fall 5-2 in the second leg in Pachuca.
Santos is no stranger to finding a similar result like Pachuca did back in '07 against the Dynamo. In the 2011-12 CCL quarterfinals, Santos lost 2-1 in Seattle, only to win 6-1 back home (including a Gomez brace). In the semifinals, they drew 1-1 with Toronto in Canada and won 6-2 at home (also with a Gomez brace) to advance to the finals.
In no way will this be an easy match for either club. Based on their respective style of play and their equally impressive results in their leagues, it truly will be a 180 minute battle as Gomez described it.