The Emerald City Supporters' pregame display Wednesday night. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
SEATTLE – If you stayed up late on the east coast to watch the CONCACAF Champions League game between the Seattle Sounders and Santos Laguna, I’m guessing it wasn’t out of a sense of masochism.
Eyes across the American soccer community were trained on CenturyLink Field to see whether two former U.S. national team strikers, Seattle’s Eddie Johnson and Santos’ Herculez Gomez, could make a statement about their abilities on a big stage.
In the end, Gomez made the statement, but Johnson’s team got what really mattered: a 2-1 victory in the first leg of their quartefinal series.
Gomez scored Santos’ lone goal in the game, a 61st minute finish of a great service into the box from midfielder Marc Crosas.
(As if the world wasn't small enough already, Crosas played for Celtic in their friendly against the Union at PPL Park in 2010.)
The goal could prove crucial in the series, as away goals are used as a tiebreaker in the CONCACAF Champions League.
There was a personal edge to the goal as well for Gomez. He played briefly for Sigi Schmid’s Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002, but apparently Schmid didn’t think that highly of him.
Gomez told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl last month that he was told by Schmid that he "should try to pick a different profession."
That didn’t happen, and Gomez remained in MLS until 2009. During that time, he was loaned from the Galaxy to the then-second division Sounders in 2003. So he already knew about Seattle when he arrived in town this week.
Gomez stated after last night’s game that "it’s behind us," and offered an apology to Schmid. He added that "it probably shouldn’t have been brought up."
"It took a little bit away from what the real headline should have been with this matchup, which has two great teams," Gomez said. "The Sounders have a great team, and a great fan base – they’ve got something really special going on here, and we have something really special going down south in Torreon."
Still, Gomez couldn’t resist saying that "it’s one of those things that throughout my career has motivated me."
Gomez left the U.S. for Mexico in 2010, and that’s when his career really took off. Spread across the four Mexican clubs for which he has played since crossing the border, Gomez has scored a total of 24 goals.
"It was special to play back in my country," the Las Vegas native said. "It’s been so long. It always feels good to be back home, [and] here in Seattle – it reminds me of how much I miss it."
Despite his prolific scoring in Mexico, Gomez hasn’t gotten a sniff of the U.S. national team since being named to the 2010 World Cup roster. That this has come at the same time as Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure might not be a coincidence.
I asked Gomez whether he has heard from anyone involved with the national team recently.
"Uh, no," he said. "I can’t say that I have. But I’ve always been a guy that just keeps my head down and keeps working, so hopefully that will pay off."
Johnson - who still isn’t fully back to match fitness after 10 months without regular playing time – entered as a substitute in the 78th minute. He had a chance to extend Seattle’s lead to 3-1 in the 80th minute, but his header of a pinpoint cross from Mauro Rosales sailed high and wide.
"If [Rosales] gets the ball out wide, he’s going to put in the box," Johnson said. "I think I timed [the header] a little bit too early, and given my relationship with [Santos goalkeeper Osvaldo] Sanchez, I was a bit scared - to be honest, I thought he was going to come out and kill me."
That produced some knowing laughs from those in the press corps who also remembered Sanchez’s attempt to trip Johnson after Landon Donovan scored in a 2007 U.S.-Mexico friendly.
So which striker has the better national team prospects right now? One factor is that both players have different styles. Gomez is a speed guy and a poacher, while Johnson’s strengths are size and power.
Gomez admitted that right now, Johnson has "a better chance" of getting a call-up. That’s in part a function of having a lone forward in Jurgen Klinsmann’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
"I think Eddie’s a very good forward and I think he’s got a huge upside – he’s still very young," Gomez said. "I think we’re kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the national team. That being said, I’m still going to try to work my way and try to make something happen."
Johnson echoed Gomez’s comments, stating: "I just think Herculez and I are two different players."
"He’s a good player who has done well in Mexico," Johnson said.
But Johnson added a little bit of an edge at the end of his answer when he said that "statistically, with the national team, I think that our stats speak for themselves."
Gomez has two goals in eight games going back to 2007, while Johnson has 12 goals in 42 games going back to 2004.
Johnson also played with the U.S. Under-17, Under-20 and Under-20 teams from 2000 to 2004, and racked up a combined total of 37 goals in 53 appearances for the three squads.
But Johnson acknowledged that he’s not yet back at a national team-caliber level
"I have a long ways to go," he said. "I’m still learning the players around me, and understanding the style of play, but I’m representing myself well."