Lynden Gooch sometimes struggles to comprehend just how rapidly his life has changed. “A couple of months ago I don’t think many people knew who I was,” he says, breaking into a high-wattage smile capable of powering a set of floodlights. “No one knew anything much about me but David Moyes has altered everything.”
It takes a brave manager to hurl an untested youngster into a floundering team yet Moyes’s faith in the midfielder from California has been rewarded by some heavy hints that Sunderland’s future may not be as bleak as advertised.
After enduring the worst start in Premier League history it was a trip to Bournemouth a fortnight ago that brought Sunderland their first league victory and a player overlooked by Sam Allardyce is displaying persistent promise.
Baptisms rarely prove more testing but Gooch’s potential has ensured the veteran of 11 appearances has rejoined Sunderland’s preparations for Saturday’s home game against fellow strugglers Hull City after returning from duty with the USA. Having sat on the bench throughout the febrile, politically charged, defeat by Mexico in Ohio, the 20-year-old won his second cap during the World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica on Tuesday. That chastening 4-0 thrashing prompted an inquest into Jürgen Klinsmann’s future as the USA coach but also reminded Gooch how swiftly things can change.
A month ago everything was very different when, after joining Klinsmann’s squad for the first time, he helped make history in Havana. “The locals were all cheering, treating us like superstars, everyone seemed quite excited to speak to us – it wasn’t a normal game,” he says, reliving a groundbreaking friendly against Cuba.
After sitting out the 2-0 win as a substitute he made his debut during a 1-1 draw with New Zealand in Washington DC, earning praise from Klinsmann.
Considering his first cap had been prefaced by an “absolutely amazing” tour of the White House’s West Wing, returning to Wearside might have seemed an anticlimax. In reality Gooch suspects he could hardly be in a better place. After all Moyes acquired a reputation for offering young players, Wayne Rooney included, first-team chances at Everton. Moreover, in many respects, the Californian’s elevation serves as a template for the manner in which the former Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager hopes to revolutionise Sunderland.
For far too many years there has been no discernible pathway from the academy to the first team but Gooch is proving a trailblazer. Equally importantly, his pace and technical ability – statistics indicate he is quicker than Jamie Vardy – makes him ideally suited to the possession-based passing game Moyes is attempting to introduce.
“Results haven’t gone the way we’d hoped but the manager has put a lot of belief into us and we still feel that, little by little, we’re improving, gradually moving in the right direction,” Gooch says.
“The manager wants us to keep the ball, pass it and play good football and that’s my game. That’s how I’ve been taught to play all the way through the academy and it’s helping me now. I feel that, under David Moyes, I can keep progressing.”
It does not hurt he is two-footed and has an eye for goal. He is also unafraid to tackle, with such ball-winning attributes swiftly winning him the respect of senior professionals, most notably John O’Shea and Jermain Defoe.
Gooch has travelled a long way since joining Sunderland as a 10-year-old, swapping Santa Cruz for the club’s Cleadon training base during school holidays before emigrating at 16.
Although both his homes are adjacent to the ocean, the Pacific breakers crashing on to America’s west coast are rather more conducive to surfing than the unruly North Sea waves awaiting visitors to Roker Beach.
“My oldest brother [he is the youngest of four boys] is a professional surfer and I used to surf a lot in Santa Cruz,” Gooch says. “I haven’t tried here, though – it’s not warm enough.”
Hostile temperatures have not stopped him falling in love with the north-east and becoming increasingly irritated by those who depict the region as some sort of post-industrial wilderness where no one who is anyone would contemplate living. “A lot of people say bad things about it to me but I don’t understand why; the north-east’s very underrated. For a start it’s so beautiful – you’ve got great countryside and great beaches. And great shops in Newcastle. I’d love to stay a Sunderland player for a very long time. I’ve been here since I was 10 and this club has given me an awful lot. I’ve made friendships I’ll have forever.”
Now he wants to give something back. “We know it’s hard for the people of Sunderland to be bottom of the Premier League – and especially when Newcastle are doing so well in the Championship,” he says. “This is a massive club with a massive fanbase and we’re not doing well enough. We’ve got amazing facilities, an amazing stadium and we’ve got to do better for the city. Our home crowds are averaging well over 40,000 but the fans aren’t getting what they deserve.”
Born in California to Anglo-Irish parents – his father, a soccer coach, is from Colchester and his mother a Dubliner – Gooch never expected to be a full USA international by now. Or that his first call-up would coincide with the country’s first game on Cuban soil since 1947. Coming only a year after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, touching down in Cuba felt like landing in a parallel universe.
“You flew for just over an hour, it’s so close to Florida, but it was weird. It was a completely different world, arriving felt like being transported into a different age. Almost everything was behind the times. The cars are amazing, they’re all old, all out of the 1950s. It was something really exciting to be part of.”
He has never doubted his decision to represent the stars and stripes rather than wait for a call from England or the Republic of Ireland. “It was a difficult choice – part of me feels English,” Gooch says. “But I was born and raised in California and I’m proud to be American.”
After Havana came Washington, the West Wing and his debut against New Zealand, with his nerves calmed by a familiar face. “When I was in the under-18s here I used to clean Jozy Altidore’s boots and suddenly I was playing alongside him. Jozy’s a really nice guy. When I did his boots he treated me very well – I think he almost felt bad about having things done for him – and since leaving for Toronto FC Jozy’s messaged me a few times. He’s really welcomed me into the US squad. Hopefully we’ll get to the World Cup together.”
Whereas Moyes has variously deployed Gooch wide on the left and deep in central midfield, Klinsmann fields the former junior sprint champion further forward. “A No10 role behind the main striker is my best position,” he says, approvingly. “Ideally, I’d always be there but, right now, I’ll play anywhere.”
Considerably tougher than his slender, 5ft 8in frame suggests, he has impressed Klinsmann. “Lynden’s fearless,” said the USA coach who sees something of Landon Donovan (the LA Galaxy forward and Gooch’s hero) in Gooch’s rapid dribbling ability and possibly regrets not starting him against Mexico and Costa Rica. “He takes people on and he’s very physical. Lynden doesn’t shy away from anything.”
Gooch certainly seems up for Sunderland’s relegation battle. “The spirit is still good in our squad. We’re all fighting to win games, trying everything we can. When you’re down at the bottom you’ve got to stick together – and we’re doing exactly that.”
The Guardian Sport