Xabi Alonso, David Silva and Conor McGregor! USMNT defender Jonathan Gomez opens up on life at Real Sociedad
It's the part of all of this that people don't see: the work that goes on in the shadows.
When a player completes their big move to Europe, fans feel like they see it coming. There are the tweets from journalists, the YouTube compilations with wild stepovers and blaring house music, the eventual confirmation tweet with a player holding a shirt with a big smile on their face
Then, for many of those players, it all stops. Fans move on to the next wonderkid looking to make their move as that player begins the slow climb up the ladder. The move to Europe is so often treated like an endpoint, but for the players themselves, it's only the beginning.
And that's where Jonathan Gomez is: right at the beginning. He's patiently awaiting his Real Sociedad debut, continuing to show his worth in training and with the reserve team. He's still mulling over his international future before making an official choice between the U.S. men's national team and Mexico. Overall, he's slowly but steadily waiting for the opportunity to present itself and give him the chance to strike.
For a while there, Gomez, like many before him, fell off the radar before the defender popped back into American soccer's consciousness this January with his second USMNT call-up. His matches aren't on TV, his training sessions aren't covered. Much of the work he has done since arriving in Spain has been away from the public eye and fans, as per usual in a World Cup year, had been so focused on Qatar, and justifiably so.
Gomez's work has included some influence from titans, names like Xabi Alonso, David Silva and Conor McGregor. But, before we get to those chapters of Gomez's journey, you'll have to show something that the defender has needed loads of since his big move came to be: patience.
"I think you have to enjoy this process because it's definitely out of the public eye," Gomez tells GOAL. "People notice like, 'Oh, what is he going to do?' You have that hype and then make that move, and I wouldn't say people forget about you, but I don't think some people understand necessarily what that process is.
"We all wish that we could make that big move and immediately be getting big-time first-team minutes, but, unfortunately, it's not like that.
"I would say that people, I mean players and everyone, have to be patient. Whenever a player gets that breakthrough, it's gonna come, and it's gonna come whenever they're ready."
Just 19 years old, Gomez's journey has already been an unusual one.
At 16, the fullback opted to leave FC Dallas' academy, and his family, behind to sign with Louisville City to gain real, first-team experience before an inevitable move to Europe. He found it, earning links to some mega-clubs before, eventually, signing with Real Sociedad on his 18th birthday.
In Real Sociedad, Gomez saw a club that could nurture him, develop him, mold him. He wasn't concerned by the language barrier, considering his Mexican-American background, and he wasn't too worried about the general lack of American presence in Spain's top flight. This was a chance to join a club that has developed premier talents like World Cup winners Xabi Alonso and Antoine Griezmann.
In fact, Alonso, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich star, was a key figure for Gomez during his early days in Spain, and the Basque's advice proved crucial in helping him feel like he belonged at a club so far away from home.
"When I first came to Spain to visit the facilities and stuff, there was something that he told me," Gomez begins. "I can't remember what we were talking about but he was saying that when things are going good, you're basically not the king, you're not God, and you need to remember to remain grounded. And then when things are going bad, you're not the worst person in the world.
"You always have to find that balance so that even when things are going well, you don't get too high, just as when things are going low, you don't get too down on yourself. You always find that happy medium."
Alonso was in charge of Real Sociedad B for Gomez's first six months in charge, and it's with that side that Gomez has featured most prominently during his time in Spain. Gomez laughs when recalling how Alonso used to hop into training and not miss a beat, looking every bit like the midfield maestro he was during his playing days.
"You could still see he still had it," Gomez said. "You never lose it. He would be one of the best, if not the best, every time. To play, even just if it's training, with a player that did all that, that basically completed everything that there is to complete in football, played at the highest level for a very long time, it's just a surreal moment."
There were practical lessons learned under Alonso, who left after six months to take over Bayer Leverkusen. Gomez says his crossing improved by leaps and bounds under Alonso, which makes a whole lot of sense given the instructor. But the biggest growth Gomez has experienced since he's arrived in Spain has been mental, he says, as he's had to face some hard truths since arriving.
Like his brother, Johan, who left home at a young age to play in Portugal, Gomez has had to adapt to being a teenager in a foreign country. He's close with his family, who play a big part in defining 'The Gomez Way', the family mantra for how they approach the game and life. And, in his solitude, Gomez has found comfort in journaling as a way to better understand his own experience abroad.
"I like to journal," he says. "I like to write down a lot of stuff, whether it be what's going on in my life or soccer. I guess it's something that I give importance to, and I think a lot of people are starting to give more importance to mental health.
"I think when people make these moves abroad, or even when people stay in the States, I know some people can't relate, but It's hard. It's hard to relate to what any athlete goes through.
"But I think mental health, I wouldn't say more people need to ask about, but just like, try and understand more because people might think an athlete has like an easy life where you do what you love, which is true and I'm not complaining about it at all and I don't think anyone would, but I think it's it's more complicated than some people would think.
"At times, it can be tough, especially when you're, for example, in Europe, away from your family or whoever has a significant other, maybe away from their girlfriend, whoever it is. It's something as simple as a bad day's training and you come home and you're alone and you don't really have anyone, and if you're in a foreign country and don't speak the language, it's just difficult.
"It's something I wouldn't say I struggle with, but I went through some tough days. I've talked to some of my friends, some of my teammates that obviously live here as well and we obviously try to help each other and speak to each other and keep those key relationships strong. But it's not easy by any means."
There are some rewards at the end of it all, though, as Gomez has gotten some experience with the first team.
He was named to the bench last March for a match against Mallorca, but is still awaiting his first-team debut. He has trained with the senior team several times, too, having been thrown into the fire with a team that is currently third in La Liga and has a realistic chance of winning the Europa League.
That team, of course, includes some stars, but few shine brighter than David Silva. Another Spanish star, another role model for Gomez, who has an up-close view as the ex-Manchester City man pulls off things that seem impossible.
"You see him out there in a simple possession drill, he'll be the neutral, and if you're just watching him from afar, he won't lose a single ball," Gomez says. "And then you're like, 'He makes it looks so easy, it must be easy', and then you go in there and you lose like five balls right away and you just think, 'how does he do it?' He's an unbelievable player and I have only good things to say about him."
And that brings us to the third superstar interaction Gomez has had since arriving in Spain, and most certainly the weirdest of the three: Conor McGregor. How in the world do you connect perhaps the biggest mixed martial artist of all time with a player awaiting his first team debut in Spain?
Well, Gomez recently signed with Paradigm Sports, which, coincidentally, also represents McGregor. And, one morning, on a day that felt like a pretty normal day, Gomez woke up to his phone going crazy after McGregor shouted him out on Instagram and welcomed him to the team.
"When I logged on, I saw it," Gomez says with a laugh. "It was like, 'Conor McGregor is following you, Conor McGregor has liked your recent posts, has mentioned you in his story.' I was just like, 'Is this real?'
"I had to go on his profile just to make sure it was his actual profile. It was just a surreal moment because it's obviously Conor McGregor. It's nice. It's more than nice; it's amazing. I don't even know how to describe it. It's an unreal feeling, like he knows who I am!"
Over the next year or so, Gomez's hope is that a few more people will learn who he is.
He figured to be a key part of the USMNT setup in the coming years, should he choose to stay on with the team.
He's eligible to feature at the U-20 World Cup this summer, the Olympics next summer and who knows, maybe the 2026 World Cup.
Until then, though, he'll continue his work in Spain. He'll continue grinding, training, playing, journaling, learning. That work won't be broadcast on Twitter or Instagram, won't be streamed to homes all over the world. But Gomez is confident that his time is coming, as long as he remains patient.
"Any player would say, I think, that it's all about being patient and waiting for the opportunity," he says, "but it's not just being patient and sitting back and saying, 'Maybe someone in my position will get injured or maybe the first team coach will give me an opportunity.'
"It's about earning that opportunity."
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