Forget hard days in Kansas City or Colorado, or flameouts in Columbus or Toronto. Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle are headed to South Africa.
The duo officially completed their unlikely return from obscurity on Wednesday, both named to the US 23-man roster for the World Cup next month after setbacks that most thought had derailed their careers for good.
The pairing – who used timely scoring sprees this winter and spring with their clubs to court US coach Bob Bradley’s favor – round out a lineup of forwards that includes expected starter Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley, a surprise pick likely expected to fill out the club’s reserves.
But with Houston’s Brian Ching and Aris forward Eddie Johnson now out of the mix, it’s likely that either Gomez, Buddle or both could see significant time in the Americans’ opener against England on June 12 and beyond.
“I wasn’t even good enough for the Wizards,” Gomez said. “So to be where I am is amazing.”
Gomez’s story is already well known, and now likely mythic for those cast out of MLS. He cut ties with Kansas City after struggling to meet expectations in 2009, then took a chance on a short-term contract with Mexican side Puebla that predicated time off the bench at best.
The 28-year-old Las Vegas native made the most of an opportunity that seemed destined for soccer oblivion, eventually earning a share of the Mexican scoring title as perhaps the best 12th man on the continent.
There was never a better time to get hot. Gomez’s success in Mexico trickled into the USMNT conversation week by week as he piled up goals off the bench, eventually forcing Bradley’s hand to include a red-hot forward in a US camp depleted of real scoring power.
Gomez then validated Bradley’s leap of faith, scoring the Americans’ second goal of a 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic on Tuesday.
Bradley admitted that Gomez likely played his way onto his team with his effort against the Czechs.
“I think that if you were going to name one player who fits into that category you would probably point to Herculez Gomez,” Bradley said. “He continues to take advantage of his opportunities. And we really feel that he’s worked hard to get to this point.”
For Gomez, it's undoubtedly the most unexpected high point of his 10-year pro career.
“I’ve learned what it means to be a professional, on and off the field,” said Gomez, who also leveraged his success with Puebla into a new deal with Mexican power Pachuca for next season. “Things just clicked for me, and I’m very grateful to be here. Even up until the moment they called my name, I didn’t believe it.”
Between Buddle and Gomez, it was tough to tell who was more wide-eyed after Bradley invited them to camp. Buddle hadn’t suited up for the USMNT since 2003, Gomez since 2007. But Buddle stuck to his guns throughout last week’s training sessions at Princeton University, swearing he wasn’t as taken aback by the challenge as most assumed he would be.
He didn’t necessarily shine in Tuesday’s loss to the Czechs, but maybe he didn’t have to. His nine goals in MLS this season spoke loudly enough to earn him a spot in camp, exemplifying the notion that a hot forward is one of the most sought after commodities in the game.
“We talk a lot about how guys have done in camp and you had a chance to see them last night," Bradley said. "But you also take into account where they are in their seasons. And certainly upt to this point in MLS, Edson’s been one of the better players in the league. And we felt that type of form needed to really count.”
The form was a long time coming. Buddle’s now on his fourth MLS club after forgettable stints in New York and Toronto, and days in Columbus when he was stuck behind Brian McBride and Jeff Cunningham.
And even in LA, he’s had his hiccups. Perhaps his defining moment before Wednesday’s announcement was getting stopped cold by Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando in last year’s MLS Cup shootout.
“I didn’t want that penalty kick to be the last thing Galaxy fans would see of me,” Buddle said.
It wasn’t. He’s emerged as one of the US team’s most unlikely and resilient faces, thankful for his health and a familiarity in Los Angeles that helped him relaunch his career.
“A big part of it has been playing with the same players,” Buddle said. “Knowing when you want the ball or when someone else wants the ball, that makes a difference. I’m still trying to maximize my potential as a soccer player, and this opportunity came around at the right time.”