Twelve years after their first meeting, Gomez and Arriola have reunited at Club Tijuana, where they room together on road trips. Kim Tate spoke to both Xolos players about their relationship.
February 18, 2014
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—The press room at Estadio Caliente is located in the visitor’s tunnel, with large murals of zombie-like Aztec warriors painted on the walls, red and black accent paint, and movie-theater style chairs in front of a large podium.
I’m sitting by myself in this empty and silent room, with nothing to listen to except the faint sound of the air conditioning, when I’m startled by a thump and a scream coming from behind the backdrop of the podium.
In walks a smiling Herculez Gomez and Paul Arriola, laughing at what seemed to be a teammate sneaking up on them and scaring Paul, who is celebrating his 19th birthday today.
Both are dressed in training gear as they wait for practice to begin, and both agreed to meet beforehand to discuss their unique relationship, which dates back 12 years.
It began when Gomez was Arriola’s age: He was working part-time as a coach for the San Diego Gauchos, and Gomez and his teammates would run once-a-week clinics for younger players in the area—including a then-seven-year-old Arriola. Gomez recalls that Arriola, who had gone on to play club soccer at Chula Vista Rangers, was the “crown jewel” at the club.
Arriola, gnawing on a power bar for pre-training fuel, clearly savors the memory.
"Back then we had this professional soccer player," he said, referring to Gomez, "and I started to follow him when he went to L.A. I actually have a signed Galaxy jersey of this guy's in my closet, still."
The last comment takes Gomez by surprise. Smiling, his eyes light up. "I didn’t know that.”
Arriola finishes his bite, looks down, and laughs as Gomez jokes, “That’s a collector’s edition right there.”
“I always joke that anything you could find in Europe Sport
magazine, the headbands, the OC shin guards, the tournament T-shirts, that’s the kid that Paul was,” Gomez continues. “He even still has the same hair-do, for sure. Maybe not as much product.”
In the 12 years since their first encounter, much has transpired for both players.
Among the many highlights for Gomez: He’s won a title in Major League Soccer with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005; he tied Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez for Mexico’s Golden Boot when he scored 10 goals in 15 games for Puebla; he made three appearances for the United Staes in the 2010 World Cup; he won a Mexican Primera Division title with Santos Laguna in the 2012 Clausura, making him the first player to have ever won an MLS title and a Mexican League Championship; and he has become a goal-scoring icon in CONCACAF Champions League play.
At 19, Arriola is just around the same age as Gomez when his career as a player started to take off. He turned heads with the Chula Vista Rangers and Arsenal FC in Temecula, Calif., and has been a part of the United States' U-17 Championship Squad. Like Gomez, Arriola also played in played in three World Cup matches—at the 2011 FIFA U-17 tournament in Mexico. He was offered a scholarship to play collegiate soccer at UCLA, and was also offered a contract in MLS with the Galaxy before he opted to play in Mexico for Xolos.
Arriola joined Tijuana in May of last year, and Gomez arrived in June. Arriola was one of many to find out about Gomez’s signing via social media.
"I was at my house, and I was still an under-20 player, so to be able to actually play with him wasn't something that popped right into my head at that time," Arriola explains. "Now to be able to play with him is funny, it's an amazing experience."
"The first time I found out Paul was here, he tweeted me," Gomez recalls. At the time, he did not remember their earlier encounters.
He and Arriola both laugh. “I said, ‘Who is this kid tweeting at me?’”
Later realizing Arriola looked familiar to him, Gomez began asking friends in the San Diego area if they had any idea who he was, which is when he realized it was the same seven-year-old kid he'd coached many years prior.
Fast forward a few months, and the reunited pair have become regular roommates on the road. Though they haven't seen much time together on the pitch during games, they make up for it when they travel.
Gomez recognizes the many similarities they share, which make them ideal roommates. Arriola agrees.
From their laid-back approach to down time, to performance-related topics, and casual banter, “we talk about everything,” Arriola says."He makes fun of me because I haven't seen a lot of things or heard a lot of music. Usually now, when we get settled into our room, I'll ask him what movies I should watch and stuff like that."
It's been a fun few months for these two, and it shows in their lighthearted banter. All joking aside, however, Gomez is also showcasing the leadership role that seems to come so naturally to him.
He admits to considering himself protective over Arriola, and tells me while he wants to provide advice based on his own experiences, he uses caution when it comes to teaching too much too quickly. He’s careful in that way, and it seems as though he’s put a lot of thought into his every day approach, giving Arriola credit for his impressive demeanor and attitude as a young professional.
"He's starting to see what it's like [at this level] because he's had this rapid ascent, so I feel protective because I've been there, Gomez says. “He's still figuring out who he is and he's got a pretty good understanding of where he wants to go. It's not very often you see that kind of maturity in kids his age, especially athletes. It's refreshing.
“I try not to tell him what do to. I try to at least give him options and let him make his own choices.”
Training and rooming together has helped them forge a bond, and while Arriola has looked up to Gomez for a dozen years, the motivation factor goes both ways in this friendship.
So does Arriola motivate Gomez in some way?"
“Yeah,” Gomez says, relishing the opportunity to take a playful dig at his teammate. "I'll look over at him when we're doing sprints and we've got 20 lb weights next to us, and I'll say, 'Let's race this next one, I'm gonna beat you.’ And he just laughs.”
Gomez pauses for effect, smiles, and chuckles. “And then I beat him."
Kim Tate covers Liga MX for American Soccer Now. Follow her on Twitter.