Santa Cruz’s Lynden Gooch rises to soccer stardom
By Neil Pearlberg
Santa Cruz has produced its share of high-profile professional athletes. Talented local football and baseball players, fighters, and a contingent of surfers have all inked their names to professional contracts. However, the most successful athlete to hail from our seaside town may be a 20-year-old soccer star named Lynden Gooch.
In 2016, the Pleasure Point native signed a three-year contract with Sunderland, a team that competes in arguably the world’s most competitive soccer league, the English Premier League. It’s also the most-watched sports league, broadcasting to 643 million homes and boasting a television audience of 4.7 billion people.
Gooch’s soccer journey began at the age of 2, when his father, Santa Cruz Breakers Academy coach Paul Gooch, would rearrange the furniture in the living room to create a miniature soccer pitch between the kitchen and patio doors. The toddler would play for hours.
“Even at that age he would emulate the greats of the game that we would watch on T.V.,” says Paul, adding, “I realized right away that he had special talent … for the game.”
The first step in realizing his dream of becoming a professional soccer player came, in 2006, at the age of 10, when he was afforded a trip to Europe, accompanied by his father, for trials with the Premier League clubs West Ham United and Sunderland.
He caught the attention of the Sunderland coaching staff when, after a 12-hour journey across the Atlantic with little to no sleep, he netted a hat-trick—three goals—in the first 25 minutes against bitter Sunderland rivals Leeds United.
For the next six years, Gooch spent every spring or summer break traveling to the United Kingdom to train with Sunderland youth academy teams. He chose to train with the youth academy at Sunderland because of the home-like atmosphere it offered foreign players, as well as the full education given to the younger players so that they had something to fall back on if their soccer careers did not pan out or were halted by injury. Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, he played for New Brighton Middle School and then Soquel High. He sought a higher level of competition in the Olympic Development Program (ODP) and Breakers Academy, where he secured a place on the U.S. National Under-16s and, Under-18s and Under 20s soccer teams.
The confident yet softly spoken midfielder signed a two-year scholar contract with Sunderland in 2011, at the age of 16, and a pro contract a few years later, in April 2016.
By then 20 years old, Gooch made his Premier League debut for Sunderland away at Manchester City on the opening day of the season last August.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Premier League player and I’ve always wanted to play in England,” says Gooch, whose father is English and mother is Irish. “I’ve got so many family members over here and it has always been my ultimate dream to play in the Premier League.”
With a full lineup of coaches, sports scientists and physiotherapists monitoring each player’s body and diet, the team’s investment in each of their athletes is utilized to the maximum. Now stronger and faster, Gooch has become the second fastest player in the league.
The Santa Cruzan adapted to the English game quickly, and credits his father, a well respected and veteran soccer coach, for preparing him for the pressures of playing professional soccer.
“I have had many coaches since I began playing, but I have to thank my father—my best coach—for everything he has done for me,” Gooch says.
Playing for your country is the highest achievement for any soccer player, with the potential for participating in the world’s most prestigious tournament, the World Cup. This left Gooch with an important decision: would he play for England, Ireland or the United States on a national level? Once a player commits to playing in a FIFA-sanctioned match with a national team, he can only be selected by that country for the rest of his career.
“My father is English, my mother Irish, and I was born in the USA and I played for the U.S. youth national teams on many levels, including [having] the honor of being captain for the Under-20 team,” he says. “My mom was always saying to me, ‘Ireland, Ireland,’ even though she calls me her ‘American boy.’ I knew that whichever I chose, my biggest fan would always be there to support me, whatever color uniform I wore.”
Gooch chose the United States, and made his debut for the team in November 2016 in a World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica.
Gooch played in nine Premier League matches for Sunderland last season, making four starts, and is now fit again after suffering ligament damage to his ankle. The kid from Santa Cruz is eager to return to the field in August for the start of the new season, when he’ll play in front of 40,000 adoring fans at Sunderland’s famed “Stadium of Light.”