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Welcome to the Midlands: A trip to the heartland of English soccer

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BIRMINGHAM – In the industrial heartland of England sits a sprawling city encapsulated by soccer. Scratch that, make that several cities and towns, wedged beside one another whose citizens view soccer as an escape. Especially the intense rivalries they have with those neighbors.

Welcome to the Midlands.

On a gray day last Sunday, light winds gusted around Aston Villa’s famous Villa Park stadium as a drizzle descended and swirled under the floodlights. It was 1:30 pm on and the Villans were hosting Manchester United. An air of optimism engulfed the streets and pubs surrounding the 42,000 capacity stadium as the biggest crowd of the season sensed an upset over the Red Devils, who were without a win in four Premier League games before that trip.

Villa were easily dispatched 3-0 by United. Moans and groans filled the damp winter air when the home fans exited. As you’ll find out, optimism isn’t one of the greatest traits people from the Midlands possess. Right now, spirits aren’t high as the three sides in the PL are all in the bottom half and a long-hard season beckons.

But that’s the way fans in this land-locked area of England like it. They’re up for the battle.

Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and (at a slight geographical stretch) Stoke City, are the three PL teams that make up the Midlands region this season. A few years back, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City were also in the top-flight representing the West Midlands as five of the PL’s 20 teams came from a 40 mile radius up and down the M6 motorway the links the region. Then, you have the East Midlands with massive teams like Nottingham Forest (two Champions League titles), Leicester City and Derby.

This region is bustling with top clubs whose fans are desperate for success.

But after a disappointing few years for the regions clubs, three remain in the top-flight.

“When I played, I had a great times in local derbies,” West Brom legend Tony Brown (more from him coming up) said. “To go to the Wolves and the Villa, it’s something a little bit special. You miss those local derbies and the fans are missing them. A few years ago we were all in it together, it was booming.”

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Click to enlarge: Map Key – Aston Villa (A), West Brom (B), Stoke City (C) are separated by one road and 40 miles.

West Brom have been steady-eddies in recent years and have two top 10 finishes in the last two seasons. But last Saturday, following their fourth-straight defeat in the PL, the Baggies sacked their manager Steve Clarke and now they’re in limbo.

Aston Villa are a club in transition. They have been for many years and managed to stave off relegation last season with a young squad and manager Paul Lambert restricted by stringent financial guidelines. It’s likely that staying out of the bottom three this campaign will be seen as another ‘success’ for the 1982 European Cup winners.

Then there’s Stoke City. Under new-management with Mark Hughes at the helm, they have a talented squad that’s trying to play a new style of soccer and evolve from a long-ball side to one that strokes the ball around majestically at the Britannia Stadium. Out of the three Midlands sides, their plight is perhaps the most encouraging so far this season.

Last week I spent time in the Midlands to find out what the close-knit rivalries and some of England’s most historic clubs are all about.

Villa, Stoke and West Brom are three of the 12 founding members of the English Football League when it began way back in 1888.

Today they’re all back in the big-time together.

ASTON VILLA: THE SLEEPING GIANT

Bumper to bumper traffic for miles around Villa Park, England’s second city almost comes to a standstill when a big team rolls into town. On my taxi ride from the leafy suburbs of Warwickshire, the country hills quickly disappeared and were replaced by dull tower blocks, factories and endless motorway bridges. The gray skies? That remained constant throughout my trip to the Midlands.

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The opponents for Villa on the day I was in town: Manchester United.

Current form might disprove it, but hand on heart, it doesn’t get much bigger than United at home.

The biggest crowd of the season was bustling around the streets in the Aston area of Birmingham. Families walking to the game together strolled passed the grand Aston Manor on the left and the M6 audibly roared away on the right, piles of leaves littered the road leading up to Villa Park, which had been Villa’s home since 1897. Then, in all its glory, one of the most famous stands in English soccer stood before me: the Holte End. It stood majestically in front of me with the club name emblazoned across it in the rich claret and blue colors, it tastefully exonerated a sense of pride and history in ‘the Villa.’

(MORE: And why should I become an Aston Villa supporter?)

The greatest night for the Villans came in 1982 when they became only the fourth English team in history, after Manchester United, Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, to lift the greatest club trophy in world soccer, the European Cup. It may be hard to believe now, but the trophy Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and everyone else is fighting for, Villa won that on a splendid occasion back in ’82 by beating Bayern 1-0 thanks to Peter Withe’s second half goal.

The TV commentary describing their finest moment as Withe scored the winner is permanently emblazoned across the central balcony between the upper and lower tiers of the North Stand (pictured, right). That reminder is something Villa’s fans hold on to. They dream of having a moment like that again. Villa are sleeping giants of English soccer who have over 40,000 fans cheering them on every week.

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Click to enlarge: The famous words which brought Aston Villa’s European Cup win to life are there for all to see at Villa Park.

Villa Park, for many years, has been the site of great occasions for fans of clubs up and down the country. For decades, at least one of the FA Cup semifinals was played here as a neutral venue, situated the middle of England. In fact, before they rebuilt the new Wembley, many wanted England’s national stadium to be built in Birmingham so people across England, not just London, could cheer on the Three Lions. Safe to say, the Midlands is without doubt the soccer heartland of the nation that invented the game.

Nowadays Villa fans have it to themselves. As my taxi crawled closer towards the stadium, past a massive Jaguar factory and more sprawling warehouses, fans in the famous claret and blue jerseys began to appear from every side alley and street along the way. Hope springs eternal. Villa’s fans dream of a return to the glory days.

As for local commerce, the motor industry in the UK calls the Midlands, and mainly Birmingham, home. The likes of Jaguar, Land Rover, GM and many others have been based here for ages. But a collapse in the car business (think Detroit but not quite as bad) affected the Midlands severely as giants manufactures like GM jumped ship. A rather unique accent adorns the voices of those who live in and around Birmingham, click here for a more in-depth analysis of how they talk. Often, “Brummies” are handed plenty of flack in and around England and in the past they City they live in has been described as ‘the most depressing place to live in the UK.

Make of that what you will. The entire city center of Birmingham has been regenerated in recent years with huge new shopping complexes, entertainment venues and transport links improving all the time.

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Meshing the old with the new, Villa Park encapsulates how the industrial past of Birmingham is evolving.

As England’s second largest city, Birmingham has a population of 1.1 million. The West Midlands in total has 2.7 million residents. With over 20 percent of those being of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent, there’s a huge multi-cultural influence across the area as several cultures unite to support their teams. Vibrant, colorful and passionate people are encapsulated by the beautiful game in the Midlands. For American soccer fans, there are a few names which you’ll know, as USMNT ‘keeper Brad Guzan is one of Villa’s star performers and the clubs owner is Randy Lerner, who owned the Cleveland Browns.

I watched the game against United, and as that air of confidence and belief grew around the stadium as chants of “Villa, Villa, Villa” reverberated around its old iron rafters before kick off. Three early efforts on goal from local lads Gabriel Agbonlahor and Marc Albrighton got the crowd in good voice. But then, in typical Villa fashion, United struck twice in three minutes through Danny Welbeck and the Holte End fell quiet.

Stunned into silence, the home crowd tried their best to get behind their side. But by halftime, one man sat behind me couldn’t take any more. “You’re useless!” “What are you doing?” “What do you call that?”

His outbursts of less than constructive criticism went on. But I have to say, he was in the minority.

Villa’s fans are a patient bunch and they appreciate that their manager, Lambert, is building a young team who want to play for the badge and know what the club means to its fans. But, right now, they’re not taking the PL by storm by any stretch of the imagination.

One banner hanging at the Holte End simply read “AVFC: The Obsession” and fluttered in the wind as it hung high about the goal to the right of the dugouts. That’s the thing — no matter how bad or how good their team is, they’re obsessed. Villa’s fans, and those of other clubs in the Midlands, will always be that way.

That’s why this region, which has been forced into an almost semi-comatose state in terms of soccer success for so long, is so valuable to England’s national sport. These guys aren’t fair weather fans, come rain or shine they’re supporting their side and whether or not their team are delivering, they’ll be there.

Soccer fans in the Midlands, they’re obsessed.

WEST BROM: STEADY-EDDIES IN TURMOIL

The last week has been a turbulent time for fans of the Baggies. They’re now managerless, suffered their fourth defeat in a row against Cardiff City and will be feeling a little down in the dumps around Christmas.

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Outside the Hawthorns, which has been a place of woe for West Brom this season.

But during my stay in the Midlands, I had the great privilege to meet Tony “Bomber” Brown, the greatest player in West Brom’s history. Brown, now 68, spent over 20 years playing for the Midlands side and amassed a club record 279 goals. He also holds the record for most appearances, 720, in the famous blue and white stripes.

Talking of the rivalries that exist in the Midlands, Brown believes the intensity levels have been cranked up considerably in recent times. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

“There was a fierce rivalry. But I think it’s even worse now,” Brown said with concerned look on his face. “With the modern generation of supporters it’s more intense with the Wolves and Albion rivalry. When I started in the ’60s Villa was the big one, as time has gone on amongst the fans Wolves and Albion is now the big rivalry. At times it’s gone over the top.”

(MORE: Steve Clarke dismissed at West Bromich Albion)

Brown also revealed how fans of all the Midlands clubs used to support each other during home games back in the ’60s and ’70s, instead of traveling to watch their club play away from home. That’s something you’d never see today.

“One week Albion fans would go and watch the Albion alongside Wolves fans and then it was the opposite the next week,” Brown said. “There was no hatred as there is now, there was just good banter and good fun. And they just wanted to watch a game. But that’s completely changed now, you’d never get that.”

That good-natured bond also used to spread between the two sets of players.

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WBA legend Tony “Bomber” Brown believes the more local rivalries the better.

“After the games we had the players rooms and we’d go and drink together, the two teams,” Brown said fondly. “All clubs had a players room and you’d go and mingle with the opposition players after you’d played against them. Everything that had gone on in the game was forgotten and you’d have a drink with them before you got on the bus. That doesn’t happen anymore. Times have changed. For the better? I’m not sure.”

West Bromwich Albion, despite their recent struggles bouncing between the top-flight and England’s second-tier, were one of English soccer’s brightest sides going back a few decades. And it’s in the late ’60s that one of the teams greatest periods arrived when they won an FA Cup in 1968 and a League Cup in 1966 as Brown and his teammates run riot. Sadly for the Baggies fans, there’s been no major trophies since then. But the fans at the Hawthorns always make a racket and have pride in their roots.

As for the huge number of foreign players in the current PL era understanding the complex and pride at stake in local rivalries in England, Brown isn’t sure they have the same feel for the derbies.

“There’s so many foreign players in the game nowadays,” Brown said. “The players today are a little bit aloof from the supporters, and the two don’t come in to contact with each other much. Players don’t get that feeling that supporters have for local derbies, the intensity and the rivalry. They are cocooned a lot, they’re not encouraged to go to supporters meeting. Back in the day we used to go and have whole evenings with the supporters clubs across the region and go to have a darts and dominoes night with them. It’s unthinkable now.”

Brown, who has been placed on the Birmingham Walk of Stars with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Homeland’s David Harewood, is still recognized and revered when he walks about the towns and cities in the area and has numerous accolades including the freedom of West Bromwich.

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‘The Villa’ and ‘Baggies’ have been fierce rivals for many years, as just a few mile separate their two stadiums.

Perhaps it’s for comments like this, why people still love him so much. I asked him about his reaction to derby defeats back in the day.

“I don’t think the players feel the hurt as much, when they get beaten in a local derby today. Because I wouldn’t go out for a week if I lost in a derby match. I wouldn’t go out in public,” Brown said shaking his head. “I’d be ashamed. I don’t think that applies now.”

What is so special about West Brom facing Villa – the two sides were sensational in a 2-2 draw earlier this season – or Wolves, Stoke or any other local side? For anyone who’s been at those intense matches, it’s quite hard to put your finger on.

“It’s hard to explain… but you can feel the difference in a local derby game,” Brown said. “The atmosphere is a little bit different compared to other games. There’s that little bit something extra. It wasn’t long ago that us, Birmingham, Villa and Wolves were all in it together for a couple of seasons. And that was absolutely brilliant. It was fantastic. The rivalry and the banter, I miss those games. Personally, I think there’s nothing like local derbies. Supporters will say we want to be in the league above Villa and look down on them etc. But personally, the more local derbies the better. Even if that means relegation to the Championship, whatever.”

Brown believes West Brom’s biggest enemy this season has been a lack of goals. Creating chances hasn’t been a issue for the Baggies, it’s just tickling the twine that’s been a concern and ultimately cost Steve Clarke his job.

As a 15-year-old, Brown upped sticks and moved to West Bromwich from Manchester and began his career as a Baggie that would eventually see him become the greatest player in their history.

But what was it that made the man known famous across England as “Bomber Brown” (for his marauding forward runs and goalscoring exploits) turn down Manchester City to sign for the Hawthorns club?

“Something, I don’t know what it was because it’s hard to explain, just being there at the Hawthorns, I just felt at home. I thought, ‘I like this place, I feel comfortable here.’ I ended up breaking almost every record at the club, so it was the best decision I ever made,” Brown laughed. “That and meeting the wife, of course.”

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Shane Long and West Brom’s other strikers have struggled to score this season.

We spoke all about the rivalries with Villa, Wolves and Birmingham, but what about Stoke? They’re only 35 minutes down the road.

“It’s not really a local derby because it’s a fair way,” Brown said, which to an American sports fan hearing that, seems a little crazy given the proximity. “But in the past it was classed as a local derby. It was always a game the fans looked to and wanted to beat Stoke. The history is Stoke at rich, and even in the East Midlands with Leicester, Derby and Nottingham Forest, there’s a needle there. This area is really passionate about their soccer.”

When his days with the Baggies were coming towards an end, Brown moved to the USA and played for Boston and later Jacksonville, Tea Men in the old NASL during the early 1980s. He spoke fondly about his love for American soccer fans and the great time he and his family spent in the States. So, if you’re an American and you want to support West Brom, here’s the message Brown has for you.

“We’re a family orientated club, not the biggest. But great tradition and have a good reputation in Britain that has always tried to play the game the right way, and entertain the fans. We’ve never had the resources of the bigger teams, but West Brom, we’re always trying to punch above our weight.”

STOKE CITY: PROUD HISTORY, BRIGHT FUTURE?

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The Britannia Stadium illuminates the dark night sky in Staffordshire.

You get a true feel for how tribal the Midlands is as a soccer region as you drive up and down the M6 between the major cities and towns that line the way. This road is the backbone of Britain, it links the South with the Midlands, Midlands with the North and the North with Scotland.

It also seamlessly links the three PL clubs in question, taking me to my next destination: Stoke-on-Trent.

That’s its full name, but commonly it’s known plain and simple as Stoke. A certain reputation adorns the people and towns in and around the area known as ‘The Potteries’ for its heavy industrial past in the textiles business. Since the 17th century ceramic goods have been made in and around Stoke and the railways lines built in the 19th century helped them to be transported across the nation and bring a huge upsurge in business. Stoke and much of Northern England was put on the map during the industrial revolution as the heyday of the British Empire saw the region thrive, when exported goods were sent all over the world and over 100,000 people worked directly in the Potteries. Now just 6,000 are employed by the listed factory buildings the region is famous for, it’s a little in the doldrums.

As traditional commerce had steadily declined, so did their soccer side and up until 2008, Stoke City had never been in the Premier League. Now they’re mainstays. The second oldest soccer team in the world, founded in 1863 as Stoke Ramblers, were always noted for having Sir Stanley Matthews. He was their leading light as one of the most famous players in history played for Stoke and was a Stoke lad. The Britannia Stadium today sits on Sir Stanley Matthews Way.

Their forced transformation from a blood and thunder outfit to a side that caresses the ball seductively is ongoing. But a recent win over Chelsea, at the boisterously loud and proud Britannia on the outskirts of town, proves they’re heading in the right direction. A trip to face Aston Villa is coming up on Saturday, as the two Midlands teams clash with both sitting in midtable but eager to get clear of the chasing pack below.

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U.S. international Geoff Cameron, left, has become a regular for the Potters and is loving life in the Premier League. He had a big hand as Stoke famously beat Chelsea to ignite their season.

U.S. international and Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron recalls the recent win over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea that got the Potters season up and running.

“It was another game where the atmosphere was just absolutely crazy,” Cameron said. “They [the fans] get you going and they pump you up. We went down 1-0 and we tied it before half time and you’re like ‘we’re tied against Chelsea, this is pretty good.’ Then boom you come out the second half firing and you feed off the crowd and go up 2-1 up, then boom Chelsea come back and it’s 2-2. In the back of our minds we’re thinking ‘not again’ because we didn’t think want the same thing that happened against Manchester United [3-2 defeat after Stoke led 2-1] to happen again. The crowd just went crazy and picked us up a little bit and we went at it then obviously Ossie [Ossama Assaidi] came in and scored an amazing goal… When we scored the whole crowd went wild. It gave you the chills to be on the pitch. It was pretty special.”

Stoke’s crowd, since they were promoted to the PL almost seven years ago, has always been pretty special. The Britannia has become one of the most difficult places to play as an away side, with that trend continuing this season. Just over 27,000 cram into the ground and generate an intense atmosphere, as Cameron described, that gives the home team an advantage.

In the past, Stoke were always one of England’s top teams. Along with their Midlands rivals. In the earlier 20th century, club legend Matthews led a side that dazzled for decades as the famous red and white stripes played great stuff when the English Football League was in its infancy.

(MORE: Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron talks about Saturday’s big upset over Chelsea)

That kind of success has eluded Stoke for decades but the fans remain, the supports is undying and the will to beat their Midlands rivals and wring every ounce of talent out of their potential drives them on.

Stoke are a hard-hitting, hard-working and hugely admirable outfit. In the past few years they may not have been pretty to watch but if you’re looking for a side that will inspire and regain your belief that rolling your sleeves up and putting in a shift is still an important art in soccer, Stoke are for you. Plus if you’re an American reading this USMNT players Brek Shea, Maurice Edu and Cameron all play for the Potters.

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Stoke’s fans are like 12th man to the side, as the noise levels generated inside the ‘Brit’ is deafening.

Sprinkle in some ‘tiki-taka’ influence from new manager Hughes, add in a deep squad of talented players and the Potters can shock the teams around them. Because despite their location close to the West Midlands and Birmingham (just 35 miles North up the M6) they’re also located just as close to Manchester’s two PL clubs and Everton and Liverpool aren’t far away either.

That close rivalry with so many teams ignites passion in Cameron, as he tells of the difference between playing in Major League Soccer in the USA, with hardly any away supporters, to having up to 5,000 fans of your own creating an intense atmosphere in the stadium of one of Stoke’s rivals.

“In England everything’s so close so the rivalries are so tight-knit,” Cameron explains. “In MLS it’s growing and getting better but you don’t get the same amount of numbers as you would because of the travel distance. There might be 20 or 30 fans who travel in MLS… not 4,000-5,000. It’s a big difference. We have West Brom and Villa in the same area, then there’s Stoke, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool all right around here. It’s crazy.”

And Stoke’s fanatical following happens away from home too.

A new initiative this season offers free bus travel for Potters fans who buy tickets to watch their team away. This has seen a huge surge in numbers of fans traveling across the UK to watch their side and Cameron reveals that as a player, it’s hugely motivational to have that support on the road.

“When you go to Aston Villa, West Brom or even down to London, you get a good group of fans if you’re the away side,” Cameron said. “When you hear, ‘they sold 3,000-4,000 away tickets to West Brom’ you’re like, that’s pretty good! Or the same at Villa, it’s good because you know the fans are behind you and supporting you. When you go out into the stadium, you can hear them.”

This season, the three Premier League teams from the Midlands region are trying as hard as they can to be heard by the rest of the league. The passion of their fans, the rich history that encapsulates the clubs and an undying determination to slog it out with the big teams in London and the North West keeps them on the verge of breaking out and repeating past glories.

Soccer’s heartland in England isn’t going through it’s most successful period. But give it a few years, these teams are putting the building blocks in place to carve their way back into English soccer’s elite.

The overriding message from the industrial hub of England: “Work in progress.”

Klopp warns Liverpool squad after Sakho’s Snapchat outburst

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31:  Jurgen Klopp (R), manager of Liverpool celebrates his team's 3-1 win with his player Mamadou Sakho (L) after the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on October 31, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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LIVERPOOL, England (AP) Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has held talks with Mamadou Sakho following the France defender’s middle-of-the-night comments on social media about his current marginalization from the first team.

FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Sakho took to Snapchat in the early hours of Saturday to question why he is not currently being considered for selection by Liverpool. He hasn’t played since April, first while serving a provisional ban for a failed drug test — that was later dismissed by UEFA — and then being sent home from the preseason tour of the United States because of concerns over his attitude.

He was not available for the start of the season because of a leg injury.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

“Now it’s three weeks since I am fit to play games,” Sakho wrote. “They don’t want me to play also with second team … Why I don’t know. I accept my situation but I can’t accept the lie.”

Asked Thursday if Sakho should just keep quiet and work hard, Klopp said: “That’s not, I would say, a rule for Mamadou Sakho, it’s a rule for every player – work hard, do your best. I spoke to the team and I spoke to Mama and we spoke together and that’s it.”

[ MORE: 18-year-old American Carter-Vickers signs new Spurs contract ]

Sakho made his first appearance of the season for Liverpool’s under-23 side against Wolfsburg on Wednesday. He will continue with the under-23s for a game this weekend.

Sakho was a regular for much of last season.

Editor’s note: Perhaps a reality television series, in which the manager and player see a marriage counselor in order to work out their differences, is required. The name? “Sakho and Klopp-o,” of course.

Lynden Gooch is living the American dream, at Sunderland

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13:  Sunderland player Lynden Gooch in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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SUNDERLAND — Lynden Gooch is living his dream in the Premier League.

From Santa Cruz, California, Gooch left home at the age of 16 in 2012 to join Sunderland’s academy and pursue his dream of becoming a Premier League player.

So far, so good.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC ] 

Gooch, 20, made his Premier League debut for Sunderland away at Manchester City on the opening day of the season back on Aug. 13 and from an early age he’s been driven to chase his ultimate dream in England.

The confident yet softly spoken American midfielder has an English father and an Irish mother, something which helped open his eyes to opportunities across the pond, and Gooch began training with Sunderland every summer from the age of 10.

Speaking exclusively to ProSoccerTalk, Gooch revealed that after watching the Premier League throughout his childhood in California, he had to make the move.

“I’ve always wanted to be a Premier League player and I’ve always wanted to play in England. I’m English, you know? I’m Irish as well. I’ve got so many family members over here and it has always been a dream to play in this league,” Gooch said. “It is an amazing place to play. To be here for four years and to be here for another three, it is amazing.”

After being handed a surprise debut by new Sunderland manager David Moyes, Gooch has made six starts so far this season for the Black Cats in all competitions. He admitted in a Facebook live chat with ProSoccerTalk on Thursday, see below, that Sunderland’s fans generate the “best atmosphere in the Premier League” and he is striving to do whatever he can to help the team he supports recover from a poor start to the season which has seen them fail to win any of their opening six games in the PL.

Sunderland square off against West Bromwich Albion this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) in what is being billed a must-win game to kick-start their season.

Gooch said that after making his initial breakthrough into the first team in both central midfield and out wide, he aims for consistency to help his team get back to winning ways. What does he see himself adding to Sunderland’s midfield?

“Getting the ball, giving it and getting it back, committing a player and dribbling past someone. I like to create things. I like to hit long balls. I like to switch the play. I think I’ve got a bit of everything,” Gooch said. “I’ve got that long ball in me and I can play the simple pass but I can dribble past someone and I’ve got a bit of pace. I just try to give as much as I can and be creative and add some flair. I just want to be a positive player and make sure I can make an impact going forward.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

As we chat in the players lounge at Sunderland’s Academy of Light training ground, with a strong breeze whipping up outside the window as trees creaked in England’s north east, there are pictures on the wall behind us of scholars who have made the grade at Sunderland. Jordan Henderson, Jack Colback and Jordan Pickford are among them and there was Gooch, signing on with former manager Martin O’Neil smiling widely. Gooch had a huge grin on his face too. “That was one of the best days of my life,” said the self-confessed Mackem.

The debate about innate ability vs. learned ability arose. Gooch grew up in a soccer mad family in Santa Cruz and played for PDA center of excellence which went to Sunderland when he was 10. On that tour of England he played in a trial game against Sunderland’s academy and scored a hat trick in the first half. The Black Cats kept tabs on him ever since and he trained with the club each summer until he signed a two-year scholar deal in 2012 and then a new three-year pro deal in April.

Can you teach how to ghost past defenders and pick out passes?

“Players just have that. You either see it or you don’t,” Gooch said. “I think I’ve had that since I was a kid and I’ve always been brought up by my dad to play with both feet. I’m very strong with both feet and always have been. I think that is really important, to be able to go either side of where a defender is or play a pass. You have to be able to do that if you want to play in this league.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Lynden Gooch of Sunderland challenges David Silva of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

When you watch him play, Gooch reminds you of a certain U.S. national team legend.

With his ease on the ball, ability to dribble and penchant for scoring and creating goals (that helped him win the Premier League U-21 Player of the Month last September) you can see a similarity to Landon Donovan. That’s probably because Gooch grew up idolizing him when Donovan played for the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer.

“I was at Spartans Stadium every week watching him play,” Gooch said of Donovan. “He was my idol as a kid, as much as probably every American kid who was playing. It’s amazing to see him come back and continue playing and score a goal against Kansas City. He has definitely been a role model. I actually got to meet him last year in Manchester which was really nice. It was good. He is a nice guy and nice to meet him but I was a bit starstruck. It was amazing to meet him.”

There’s another goalscoring hero who is an idol of the Californian’s too.

“I’ve always looked up to Wayne Rooney,” Gooch said, nodding his head. “I think I was watching the game when he scored against Arsenal for Everton, his first goal, and now I am working with the same manager [David Moyes] so it is funny how things work out like that. I see a lot of myself in Wayne. Obviously he is in a different league with the career he’s had but in terms of strength and being able to play in so many different positions, I’ve always looked at him as a role model and to try and be like him.”

Tales of Gooch’s rise is music to the ears of U.S. national team fans as many salivate over the prospect of a USMNT young talent playing regularly in the Premier League. Jurgen Klinsmann has already reacted positively to Gooch becoming a starter at Sunderland and it would not be surprising to see him play for the full U.S. national team in the coming months.

He admits that he wants to play for the USA, despite qualifying for both the English national team and Republic of Ireland, but being left out of the U.S. U-20 World Cup squad in 2015 by Tab Ramos was not only a tough pill to swallow but something which spurred him on.

“That really hit me quite hard,” Gooch said. “I thought that without a doubt I deserved to be in that squad. I’d been in every single squad up until that point. That was very hard to take but it definitely made me want to prove them wrong even more and show them that they made a mistake.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Bacary Sagna of Manchester City (L) attempts to black Lynden Gooch of Sunderland (R) shot during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

On the U.S. front, Gooch is one of a number of promising attack-minded midfielders coming up through the ranks. Christian Pulisic has stolen most of the headlines at Borussia Dortmund with his stunning breakthrough, and that success is spurring Gooch on to reach new heights.

“I played against him [Pulisic] in preseason when we played Dortmund but obviously I’ve heard and I’ve seen him play. Even here people are talking about him in the dressing room so everyone can see how good he is and what he brings,” Gooch revealed. “Being so young, he just turned 18 years old, he is doing fantastic and it will be great to play with him as well.”

That burning desire to push on to bigger things with Sunderland and the U.S. national team drives Gooch on. Even if many still question his decision to leave the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Cruz behind to pursue his dream in the chilly, windswept city of Sunderland in the far north east of England. He lives with his girlfriend and her family (who Gooch says he owes so much too for taking him in over 5,000 miles from his home) and he and Talia are moving in together for the first time in November.

Even with his entire family now back in Santa Cruz (including his brother who is, of course, a professional surfer), life is good for Gooch.

“People still ask me ‘why have you come to Sunderland from California!?’ Well, I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be a professional footballer. I wanted to play in the Premier League and I want to play for this football club. Hopefully I can do that for a long time,” Gooch said, proudly. “Some people are still surprised at how far I’ve come. It was a no-brainer for me. As soon as I could’ve come to this club. I would’ve come early at aged 14, or 12, whenever… I would’ve came.”

Is he surprised how fast all this has happened?

“The start of the season has been surprising not only for me but for everyone around the world, in the States and here at the club as well. It came as a shock to start the first game and to continue playing. I’ve started six games so that’s been amazing so far. It is something I didn’t see coming but I’ve worked really hard to get this opportunity.”

FOLLOW LIVE: Man United back at Old Trafford; Southampton away in Israel

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton, the only Premier League sides in the group stage of the 2016-17 Europa League, suffered and enjoyed, respectively, on matchday no. 1 two weeks ago.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Thursday’s Europa League action ]

Man United suffered defeat at the hands of Feyenoord on the opening day of the group stage, losing 1-0 abroad, with a mostly first-team squad just days after the Manchester derby defeat to Manchester City. Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils currently sit bottom of Group A.

Meanwhile, Southampton opened their European campaign with a home victory over Sparta Prague. Charlie Austin scored twice on the day, and Jay Rodriguez provided the other goal. Saints enter matchday no. 2 top of Group K.

Today’s notable Europa League fixtures

Manchester United vs. Zorya — 3:05 p.m. ET
Hapoel Beer Sheva vs. Southampton — 1 p.m. ET
Steaua Bucuresti vs. Villarreal — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Rapid Vienna — 3:05 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Panathinaikos — 1 p.m. ET
Roma vs. Astra Giurgiu — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sparta Prague vs. Inter Milan — 1 p.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. Qarabga — 1 p.m. ET
Genk vs. Sassuolo — 3:05 p.m. ET
Schalke vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 1 p.m. ET

18-year-old American Carter-Vickers signs new Tottenham contract

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 29:   Cameron Carter-Vickers of Tottenham Hotspur headers the ball during 2016 International Champions Cup Australia match between Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico de Madrid at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 29, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)
Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images
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It’s been a decent eight days for Cameron Carter-Vickers, to say the least.

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Just last Wednesday, the 18-year-old United States and England dual international made his first-team debut for Tottenham Hotspur in the club’s rout of League One side Gillingham in the third round of the 2016-17 EFL Cup.

Barely a week later, it was announced by the club that Carter-Vickers had put pen to paper on a brand new contract that will keep him at Tottenham until the summer of 2019.

Carter-Vickers, who is yet to make his Premier League debut for Spurs, has been a part of the club’s youth academy for eight years now, progressing through the ranks and arriving onto the periphery of the first-team squad this season. Available off the bench for just about every game Spurs have played this season, the Essex-born youngster has seemingly surpassed 23-year-old Austrian international Kevin Wimmer along Mauricio Pochettino‘s pecking order.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

The son of an American father, former professional basketball player Howard Carter, CCV is eligible for both the English and U.S. national teams. With his rise to the Spurs first team, rumors have begun to circulate that England would come calling soon, though SI.com reported on Wednesday that he is “all USA” regarding his international allegiance.

CCV spoke exclusively and extensively to PST’s Joe Prince-Wright last September. You can read JPW’s feature about the then-17-year-old, right here.