PHILADELPHIA — Though it may seem like a lifetime ago, it was just 22 months ago when Lynden Gooch was realizing his dream of playing in the Premier League. The Sunderland midfielder earned the start against Manchester City in the 2016 season opener, and went on to receive five more starts, all at the age of 20.
Less than two years later, Sunderland has endured its second straight relegation, dooming the Black Cats to League One next season after finishing dead last in the League Championship. Gooch was one of the few bright spots for Sunderland, making the most of his opportunities even when then Sunderland manager Chris Coleman benched him for a stretch.
Though Gooch's efforts couldn't help halt Sunderland's slide further away from the Premier League, his play did help bring him back into the U.S. national team picture. First, with an appearance last November in the 1-0 friendly win against Portugal, and now with a call-up for the upcoming friendly against Bolivia.
"I want to try to solidify more of a spot on the national team because sometimes I'll get called in and then I won't be in for a camp or two," Gooch said. "I want nail down a place if I can to try and get called up on a regular basis."
Gooch first broke in with the U.S. during the tail end of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. coach, impressing with the same speed and tenacity that helped him earn David Moyes' trust enough to become a starter at Sunderland, albeit briefly. He failed to earn a call-up during Bruce Arena's second stint as U.S. coach, but made his return last November against Portugal.
Despite having endured multiple injuries and Sunderland's precipitous fall over the past two seasons, Gooch still felt confident that his strong play earlier in 2018 was enough to show he deserved another look.
"At the time when I was playing really well I thought it would be pretty difficult for them not to call me because of the form I was in," Gooch said. "Then I had the injury, and when that happened I just started thinking that I need to get fit to have a chance for a call-up and I was able to do that."
A knee injury cost Gooch the final four matches of Sunderland's season, but he has recovered well enough to be called into a U.S. camp filled with young players. Now, rather than being one of the youngest players on the national team at the age of 20, his age is actually the average age of the entire squad currently in camp.
"It's a little weird because I feel like one of the older players and I'm only 22 so it's kind of funny," Gooch said. "I'm proud to be back. It's going to be a good week."
Gooch has a chance to not only boost his place in the player pool ahead of the hiring of the new U.S. coach, but also will be able to showcase his talents for interested teams that could be looking to scoop him up from Sunderland. He has one year remaining on his contract, and sources tell Goal has already begun to draw interest from teams in the League Championship.
"All the players are in limbo, it's kind of a waiting game now," Gooch said. "That's my home, it's been my home the past six years. It's a good place to play football, even if the past two years haven't gone well, but hopefully we can bring the team back to where it belongs."
Sources tell Goal that the San Jose Earthquakes have also expressed interest in acquiring the local product from nearby Santa Cruz, but Gooch wants to stay in England, where he has played since joining Sunderland's youth academy full-time at the age of 16.
"I'm committed to Europe, I want to stay in Europe as long as I can," Gooch said. "MLS is something I'll think about maybe a bit later, but I'm 22 years old and I really want to try and make a great career, whether it's England or elsewhere in Europe."
Gooch should have a better idea of his club future after Monday's news that Stewart Donald had completed the purchase of Sunderland from American Ellis Short, and plans to name a new manager in the next seven days.
For now, Gooch is focused on the U.S. camp and trying to impress interim manager Dave Sarachan enough to earn starts in the upcoming friendlies against Bolivia, Ireland and France. After that, Gooch will root for England at the World Cup, both because his father is from England and because his former teammate and current Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is on the squad.
"I've grown up in an English household, and have lived in England for six years, so I'd like to see them do well and will be supporting them since (the USA) is not involved," Gooch told Goal. "I came through the (Sunderland) academy with Jordan Pickford, so hopefully he's the number one. He's a good friend of mine so I'm hoping he does well."
Though he'll just be a fan watching the World Cup this summer, Gooch will spend the coming weeks trying to solidify his place within the next generation of U.S. players trying to rebuild the national team program. That, coupled with the ongoing situation at Sunderland, makes the coming weeks very important for Gooch, for both club and country.