Christian Gomez doesn't speak English -- not a lick. But the Argentine midfielder has become so comfortable with his new club since arriving in August, so happy to be living in Washington and helping D.C. United pursue its first MLS championship in five years, he doesn't seem to care that hardly any teammates know what in the world he's talking about.
Gomez will approach anyone associated with the team, from staff members to Freddy Adu's mom, and try to strike up a conversation in Spanish. A few are bilingual and are able to communicate, but everyone else just plays along, smiling and nodding politely.
"His soccer personality says more than his words," midfielder Earnie Stewart said. "He feels and senses what to do on the field."
Other than the occasional linguistic obstacle, Gomez has made a remarkably smooth transition and has helped United move to the verge of a berth in the Eastern Conference final. Following last weekend's 2-0 victory over New York/New Jersey, United needs only a tie or a loss by one goal tomorrow night against the MetroStars at RFK Stadium to wrap up the two-game, total-goals series.
"It's two totally different cultures -- the language, the people, the style of life," Gomez said through an interpreter about his move from Argentina. "This is a fantastic country. I love it here."
Gomez, who will turn 30 next week, has contributed four goals in 10 appearances, but most importantly, he has orchestrated the attack and guided the club to four consecutive victories and six wins in the last seven matches. His presence has also alleviated the pressure on team MVP Jaime Moreno, a withdrawn forward who no longer has to drop deep into midfield to spark the attack.
"Christian was what we were missing," United President Kevin Payne said. "We had a good team, but we needed someone to run things."
Gomez was actually discovered by United two years ago by then coach Ray Hudson, who had traveled to Argentina on a scouting mission. But low-budget MLS was unable to acquire him at the time. This summer, however, when Gomez's contract with the Argentine club Arsenal de Sarandi expired, United purchased him in a complicated loan deal.
Upon his arrival, Gomez needed time to improve his fitness level because he hadn't played competitively in weeks. He debuted in the 71st minute of a 2-2 tie at Columbus on Aug. 21 and has started ever since. He scored in the first half against Chicago on Sept. 18 and again three weeks later against New England, then added a pair of goals six minutes apart in the regular season finale with the MetroStars.
"I've been able to create opportunities," Gomez said, "but I know that I need to do better with my defending. I didn't really have a preseason, so I know I still need to get my fitness level to where it should be. I feel much better now. When I first got here, I was very sore after the games, but now I feel fresh."
Gomez grew up in Buenos Aires, five blocks from the small Argentine club Nueva Chicago, and at age 5 began playing in neighborhood streets and parks. A year later, his father enrolled him in Nueva Chicago's youth program. Most every Argentine kid becomes a fan of Boca Juniors or River Plate, ancient rivals in the capital city. Gomez supported Boca, "but as I got older, I drifted from Boca and turned to Nueva Chicago."
As for idols, there was only one choice: Diego Maradona. "I was 11 when the 1986 World Cup was played and that's when Maradona was at his peak," he said. "To be a boy at that age, you emulated Maradona. For us in Argentina, Maradona was, and will always be, the greatest."
Gomez played six years for his local club before moving to Independiente and then Argentinos Juniors before rejoining Nueva Chicago. Another stay with Independiente was followed by a season with Arsenal de Sarandi, where he had six goals in 30 appearances.
Gomez had never been to the United States, but MLS intrigued him. "In Argentina, we don't have a lot of information about MLS," he said. "But I realize now the level of play is high, it's a very physical game. The league is growing and in a couple of years, MLS will be on par with some leagues in Europe because it has everything -- the structure is good and the pay checks are on time."
While Gomez is here, his parents and four siblings follow his progress by listening to audio broadcasts on United's Web site. Last week, after Gomez was named MLS's player of the week, his family watched his highlights on ESPN International.
Gomez's happiness with United has been reciprocated, and Payne said United plans to extend the loan or purchase his contract next season.
"I would love to come back, but it's not up to me," said Gomez, whose wife and 7-year-old twins [a boy and a girl] joined him in Washington last month. "I want to continue to live in this city and learn the language. I feel very comfortable here."