Photo by Jane Gershovich/JaneG.Photography
By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE, Wash. – Herculez Gomez engaged in light-hearted banter with the Seattle Sounders for much of the week leading up to Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinals match. At one point the Sounders front office sent Gomez a pillow, per his request.
In the end, Gomez enjoyed the last laugh, scoring the lone goal in Santos Laguna’s 1-0 victory in front of 21,057 at CenturyLink Field.
Darwin Quintero unleashed a shot from the top of the penalty area in the 53rd minute, forcing Seattle goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann into a diving save. Gomez stepped into the deflection, burying a one-touch volley into the far corner of the net before Hahnemann could even get off the ground.
Gomez missed a chance to score on the counter in the 26th minute, sending a shot wide of the far post. The U.S. Men’s National Team regular had an unsuccessful trial with a lower-tier version of the Sounders nearly a decade ago, and heard the “Soun-ders Re-ject” chants from the crowd after that early miss.
“I love it,” said Gomez when asked about the chants. “Being called a Sounders’ reject, being called any kind of reject. It digs deep and it fuels fire. I didn’t have the easiest go of it at the beginning of my career, so any chance I can get to redeem myself is a good chance.”
Seattle, off to its worst start in franchise history in league play, had late opportunities but never capitalized.
In the 65th minute, forward Sammy Ochoa got free on the counter inside the penalty area, but—in a moment emblematic of the night—sent an open 12-yard shot several feet wide of the far post.
Mario Martinez found Zach Scott in the center of the area in the 86th minute, but the defender could only muster a soft header directly into the arms of Santos goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez. It would be Seattle’s last decent chance to equalize.
Given the away-goals tie-breaker, the victory gives Santos Laguna a comfortable lead heading home to Torreon, Mexico, for the April 9 second leg. The last time Seattle visited Santo Laguna’s Estadio Corona, it suffered a franchise-worst 6-2 thumping in last year’s Champions League quarterfinals.
The winner of this series will face either the Los Angeles Galaxy or two-time defending CCL champion Monterrey in the two-leg final, scheduled for April 24 and May 1.
Seattle, in the tournament’s semifinals for the first time, controlled play for much of the first half but could never mount a serious threat. Head coach Sigi Schmid sat midfielders Steve Zakuani and Mauro Rosales, while forwards Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins missed the match with injuries.
Without that quartet, the Sounders lacked the attacking threat to really test Santos Laguna’s defense, though they did play arguably their best match since beating Tigres in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Schmid, irate with his team over the weekend for its 0-3-1 start to the MLS season and its listless performance in a 2-1 loss on Saturday to Real Salt Lake, struck a slightly more positive tone after the loss.
“Obviously it’s a home game so you don’t want to lose your home game,” Schmid said. “I thought we didn’t play that poorly, I thought we did alright. They’re a good team. Obviously they’re a very good team. Their front three are as dangerous a front three as you’re going to run into anywhere. They got in a few times, but I thought for the most part we held them at bay, which was good.”
Santos Laguna, winner of the 2012 Liga MX Clausura and a Champions League finalist last year, began to wrench the match in its favor around the half-hour mark, with Gomez, Rodolfo Salinas, and defender Osmar Mares all getting decent looks off the counter-attack.
It was a turning of the tide that eventually resulted in the rare goal for a USMNT player that deflated the hearts of at least some American fans. And the Sounders know the hurdle it leaves them.
“Obviously we were missing some people,” said Schmid. “So now we just have to go down there and play pretty much a perfect game. That’s not impossible. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
For his part, Gomez was quick to note that Seattle fans seemed to keep the night in perspective.
“After the game, fans were pretty appreciative,” Gomez said. “They know that when 90 minutes are over I become a national team player again. They let me know how they felt, and that was pretty special.”
Here is Gomez’s first-leg winner: