Last Wednesday, the Houston Dynamo were knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals by Mexican club Santos Laguna 3-1 on aggregate. Los Guerreros lost the first leg 1-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium behind a late Brad Davis goal. With Houston headed into the second leg with a slim lead, the Dynamo knew they had a tough mountain to climb. In the end, it wasn't enough, and the Dynamo bowed out of the tournament after the road loss.
After the first match on March 5, Santos coach Pedro Caixinha was extremely confident in his side - both when describing the first leg and in brief comments about the second leg. His comments were described by many as "over the top" and "arrogant."
Liga MX clubs have dominated CCL for a long time - that is no secret. This year, Seattle and Los Angeles will try and turn around those results in the semifinals, but only time will tell if they have what it takes to take down either Santos or Monterrey.
Santos in particular have been in great form lately, in both CCL and Liga MX. After beating Houston in aggregate in the quarterfinals, I talked with Santos Laguna and USMNT striker Herculez Gomez to get his thoughts on a number of topics.
We talked attendance in Estadio Corona, his goal in the match, his thoughts on Seattle's historic win over Tigres, and of course touched on Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha's comments and his impact on the club.
Shortly before the match, Santos announced the match had officially sold out. Estadio Corona seats 30,000 and shortly after the start of the game, you couldn't see an empty seat in the building. "There were 3000 people outside the gate waiting to get in," Gomez told me.
It should be noted that last year in the CCL quarterfinals, Santos and Seattle drew 14,278 when they played in Estadio Corona. The club didn't mess around this year and were able to pack the house against Houston. Knowing how important the fans are to Santos' success in Estadio Corona, Gomez contributed to ensuring the green seats were filled on Wednesday.
"I personally purchased 100 tickets on my own and gave them away," Gomez said.
A packed house definitely contributes to a team's success on their home pitch - Dynamo fans know this well. On Wednesday, Estadio Corona was rocking and definitely played a part in the victory for Santos.
As for their latest victim on their quest for a CCL title, Gomez had plenty of praise for the Dynamo, but also made Santos' mission very clear.
"We want to be considered the best. We want to rub shoulders with the best.
We want to literally win this tournament and compete at the Club World Cup.
For us it was instrumental to get by Houston. It wasn't easy; you can't take anything away from them. They've done plenty to get here and to be in this position.
For us it was about doing what we set out to do at the beginning of the season.
And it just so happens it was Houston this go round."
The three Dynamo goals came off of a penalty, a defensive breakdown due to communication, and a player left completely unmarked in the box. You could call these silly or preventable mistakes; but on the other hand, Santos deserves their credit for putting the pressure on Houston too.
"You could say Houston made silly mistakes or you could say we forced them into mistakes. I'd like to think it's the latter.
I'd like to think that collectively with the home field, with the crowd, with our play, our intensity, we forced Houston to back up into a wall and we made them commit some silly mistakes that maybe isn't characteristic of them. But that's what good teams do.
I think people need to not focus on what Houston didn't do, or what they stopped doing, but what we forced them to do."
In the 28th minute, Herculez Gomez scored the second goal for Santos. Tally Hall and Bobby Boswell were both headed towards a dangerous ball, but seemed to think the other would clear it. Gomez never gave up on the play and was able to angle the ball between the two players and into the back of the net.
"At that time, I don't recall who laid the ball off, but they laid it off to Calderon. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was going to pop it into space.
Houston's been backing off on us pretty much the whole series. They don't want to get beat behind or stretched.
I knew they'd already be covering that space but the ball went there and I didn't want to make it easy on the defender. He's now facing his own goal, so I'm hoping he maybe plays it out for a corner kick.
I see Tally running out, and at this point when I see Bobby slowing down, I think I can come over his shoulder on his blind side and maybe give it a poke. As I come over, I notice I have a significant space to kinda hit the ball. At that point, I thought that Tally and I would kinda collide or maybe hit the ball at the same time, so I figured I'd hit the ball as hard as I could.
It just so happens I got there before Tally and I was fortunate enough that it went the direction of the goal, and it went in. Pretty typical play on my part of not giving up on a play."
Gomez' goal celebration was one fans will remember for a long time - well at least the fans involved. Gomez leaped over the ads alongside the field and jumped into the stands - Lambeau Field style. Well, not really - see in Torreon they have their own name for it.
"I remember jumping over the advertisement signs and literally fell into a pit. Down here in Mexico, they have maybe a 4 foot drop off from the stands and the fans to the field. I remember falling in there and was lucky to not break something. I popped up and jumped into the stands, and it was pretty cool.
Doing our own Lambeau Leap, they've been dubbing it the Laguna Leap."
Gomez and midfielder Marc Crosas are teammates, but also friends off the field. Crosas scored what is definitely Santos' most important goal of the night - the third. Prior to the goal, Houston was pressing to score. One goal would have put them in the driver's seat to advancing due to the away goals tiebreaker. Crosas' goal put Houston's dream out of reach.
"We've got this inside joke going around with some of our friends on the team that Marc for the life of him cannot score [laughs]. The day he scores, it's going to be apocalyptic. So when he scored it was really funny, nice to see him react at how the ball went in. Plus it was a big goal for us.
Houston was applying some pressure, we had no legs left, and we were out of subs. We were only attacking with two players - Darwin Quintero and myself. So when that goal went it, it was a huge relief for us."
Santos' success is undeniable. Not only are they on track to make the Mexican liguilla this season, they have a chance to get to the CCL final for the second year in a row - that's no accident. But in the Apertura 2012 (one season removed from a championship), Santos didn't make the playoffs and decided to make some changes. A couple players were moved out, and Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha was brought in to manage the club.
In Liga MX, coaching changes can be difficult - especially with foreigners.
"First off, you have to realize [especially in Liga MX] when a coach [from abroad] comes into a new team, a new league, sometimes by media, by fans, even by players, he isn't accepted or the transition doesn't go as easily as it may in other places. You saw that in Chivas with the whole Dutch invasion.
The transition with Pedro coming on was pretty much the same cause it's a culture shock for a lot of players here. It's a different system, a different way of training, a different way of acting on and off the field. Things like that kind of jolt the system.
And he was no different. He came in and he had his philosophies and our preseason was insane, and our training sessions are still insane. But then, little by little, as time goes on, you start noticing these changes - not only in yourself, but your teammate's habits, your training habits, your team's way of thinking."
Most MLS fans think of Santos solely as an attacking team and don't give their defense the credit it deserves. Gomez attributes this important change to Caixinha and the example he sets.
"We went from being one of the most attacking teams my first year, attacking at will without consequence to all of a sudden being a better tactical team. Defensively, we're one of the best teams in Mexico.
It starts at the top with the way the forwards pressure and move, and lock down areas and specific sectors of the field - making it impossible for teams to keep an excess amount of possession on you. And it's a trickledown effect.
Things like that happen when - when you see him coming in and doing these things and everybody buying in, yeah it does give you that confidence and to see the fruits of your labors."
In regards to Caixinha's post match comments, Gomez made it clear Houston had the respect they deserve for the entire series.
"What he said, that's our coaches opinion, or maybe his confidence.
Let's be honest, there is a language barrier - his English isn't his first language, Spanish isn't his fist language, sometimes there is a lost in translation sort of feel.
By no means did we feel we had won the series in the first leg. By no means did we feel Houston didn't deserve to be in the second leg. We respect them; they're a very good team. They've gotten his far for a reason."
Without mixing words, Gomez also made it clear Santos had confidence in their ability to get past Houston.
"But by all means, did we have faith in ourselves? There wasn't once in that first leg where we felt we were in a panic mode or in trouble to where the second leg still wasn't there for the taking."
Next up for Santos Laguna will be a rematch from last year's CCL with MLS side Seattle Sounders. Last year, Seattle got a big 2-1 lead from their home match, but were left wondering what could've been after a 6-1 loss at the hands of Los Guerreros in Estadio Corona (including a Gomez brace).
Herculez Gomez gives fans a rare opportunity in this day and age - constant interaction and honesty on social media. Now that Houston is behind them, he's turned his attention to the Seattle Sounders and their fans.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-cards="hidden"><p>¡Happy Anniversary Seattle! On this day 1 yr ago you made your first trip to the Estadio Corona .Such fun. ¡Yay! <a href="https://twitter.com/search/%23CCL">#CCL</a> <a href="http://t.co/RxG8bzyhLI" title="http://twitter.com/herculezg/status/312242606186840064/photo/1">twitter.com/herculezg/stat...</a></p>— herculez gomez (@herculezg) <a href="https://twitter.com/herculezg/status/312242606186840064">March 14, 2013</a></blockquote><script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Before talking about Seattle, he made sure he talked about the Houston fans and their lack of fun with the striker.
"I'll tell you what; at least Seattle wants to play. At least Seattle wants to have fun on Twitter. Houston didn't want to have any fun," Gomez said.
He does recall one fan - likely a rowdy fan from our supporters groups based on the location.
"There was a fan after the game in Houston as I was walking out of the tunnel, who called me out. He say's "Gomez!" and he puts his finger on his mouth giving me a hush sign. I remember him, thinking ok, that's funny big guy.
I thought at least he was trying."
Engaging fans is something Gomez does on a regular basis. Over that last few days, Seattle fans and Gomez have had some back and forth banter - but all in good fun.
"Things like that, it's good to do that. It's good for every once in a while to stir the pot. You don't have to be disrespectful, but you can be funny, witty, and have a good conversation with a professional athlete who's trying to actually engage.
I don't mind mixing it up. I think it's all in good fun. It's all good banter."
Last Tuesday, Seattle made history for Major League Soccer by defeating Liga MX club Tigres. The win was the first time an MLS club defeated a Liga MX club in a knockout round in the CONCACAF tournament. Tigres coach Tuca Ferreti brought a group of youth and reserve players and outside of Seattle the win was overshadowed a bit.
According to Gomez, Seattle doesn't have to worry about that and has more relevant things to concentrate on.
"There's not going to be an asterisk over their series win. It really doesn't matter if Tigres sent their full squad or their B squad. That should be irrelevant to them.
What should be relevant to them is they have a chance to face a team that knocked them out about a year ago this day. They have a chance to now host a semifinal game in front of their fans. That should be of relevance to them.
They have a chance now to make the CONCACAF final. That should be something of relevance.
Nobody's going to look back three or four years from now and say, "oh, they beat Tigres, but..." That's not going to happen."
As for the upcoming matches - to be played on April 2 and April 9 - Gomez can't wait to get started.
"It's going to be a great series. It's going to be fun. I for one am looking forward to it. We're playing a great team.
They're getting help from the league on getting rested, they're getting reinforcements with DP players, and they've got a great home crowd. And they have it in for us right now - so it's gonna be fun."
Some fans reading this may not know much about Santos, their rivalries, or recent success in both league and international play. With Monterrey being just a couple hours away from Torreon, both the Rayados and Tigres are the games Santos fans get up for.
"That's their [fans] games. Those rivalry weeks, whether Tigres or Rayados - you'll hear about it. If you're at the grocery store or at a restaurant, the waiters, people helping you, casual fans they'll let you know - ‘you can't lose this game'."
In the 2011/2012 CONCACAF Champions League final, Monterrey beat Santos for the title and a chance to play in the Club World Cup. Just a month later, in the 2012 Clausura, Santos was crowed champion by making their way through both Tigres and then Monterrey in the final.
Monterrey advanced past Xelajú and will face the LA Galaxy in the other semifinal match. Santos surely isn't thinking past the Sounders, but I wondered if it would be Gomez' preference to get a shot at revenge against Rayados who knocked them out of the CCL last year.
"I'm sure that's who the fans would like to see. It's a clasico for the Santos fans. Maybe not so much for the Monterrey fans, but for the Santos fans for sure.
On a personal level, I'm not looking past Seattle. I think that would be stupid of me. I think that would be stupid of us. We've got a very good team in front of us. We've got to handle that before we get to the next thing."