FOX Soccer Exclusive
Holden planning big future with U.S.
A children’s charity fundraiser held a week ago probably wasn’t the place to be thinking about payback or a grudge, but you couldn’t have blamed Stuart Holden if he didn’t at least think about the idea of taking a run at Nigel DeJong.
The two players were celebrity bartenders at a charity fundraiser, but they shared more than just similar jobs as English Premier League midfielders. It was less than nine months earlier in Amsterdam where a reckless De Jong challenge broke Holden’s leg and risked jeopardizing his chances of staying with Bolton, not to mention his chances of making the U.S. World Cup team.
Instead of holding a grudge, Holden smiled and shook the Dutchman’s hand. The subject of the tackle didn’t even come up.
Holden has better things to focus on these days than holding grudges. Specifically, a blossoming career and outstanding run of form as a key midfielder on a surprising Bolton squad. His last-minute winning goal in last week’s 2-1 victory over Blackburn served as the latest high point in a season to remember -- a season that has made his past setbacks easier to forget.
“It’s really just been a great year,” said Holden. “I’ve always had that belief that I could do well. I just needed the right setting and the right manager.”
“(Bolton manager Owen Coyle) saw enough in two games to offer me a contract and for me that said a lot,” Holden said. “When I got fit after the World Cup and had a proper pre-season I really wanted to make a big impact this year and I think I’ve just gone from strength to strength in every game.”
Bolton and Coyle are reaping the rewards of the faith shown in Holden last spring, when Holden’s broken leg threatened to end his Premier League season when it was just getting started. Holden was on a short-term contract and had just started to receive playing time when he suffered his broken leg, but instead of having to worry about an uncertain future, Holden knew he would have more time to show Bolton he could be an impact player.
“I didn’t really have time to think about (the injury) before the manager called me and told me he wanted to sign me to a new contract,” Holden said. “For me, that said it all really. I didn’t have to worry about my future.
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“When I was 19 at Sunderland, when I got injured and on a short-term contract I was kind of left in limbo,” said Holden, who was sidelined at Sunderland after being viciously attacked. “When I got back fit I only got back for the last game of the season.”
Holden is thriving in a central midfield role with a Bolton team currently sitting in sixth place in the Premier League. His tenacity and attacking spark has helped a Trotters side playing an attractive style of football.
Holden’s impressive form and growing confidence were clear to see when he scored a clutch 88th-minute winner to help Bolton beat local rivals Blackburn. The goal was a thing of beauty, Holden racing on the full-sprint to chest down a headed pass before volleying it home in one motion. It was easily one of the best goals scored by an American player in 2010.
“I’ve probably watched it 50 times since and my reaction after we scored and how happy I was is something else,” Holden said. “I knew how much it meant to the fans, with it being the derby and with us being so disappointed that we had just given up a goal.
“That sums up the spirit of our team,” Holden said. “We just put the ball down and, straight off the kickoff, bang it forward. Don’t dwell on the fact we just gave up a goal. It just kind of fell for me and is probably the best goal I’ve scored, right up there with the one against Haiti (a stoppage-time equalizer off a long-range blast for the United States in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup).
Holden’s form for Bolton has not only boosted his stock on the club level, it has him poised to be one of the young players ready to take on a larger role with the U.S. national team. He showed some good flashes in October friendlies against Poland and Colombia and figures to be a key contributor when the new cycle begins in 2011.
The Aberdeen-born 25-year old points to next summer’s Gold Cup as a tournament he’s looking forward to playing in, particularly given the fact that it will feature the full U.S. team. Last summer, Holden was a part of the 2010 U.S. World Cup team, but he managed just a four-minute cameo appearance in the 1-1 draw against England.
“I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to make a bigger impact at the World Cup and part of that was the timing of my injury, and part of it was the way the guys were playing on the field,” said Holden.
“I don’t hold any grudges and I was grateful to be a part of the team, but obviously as a player you wish you had a bigger opportunity to make an impact,” Holden said. “Now, it’s been a goal of mine to establish myself at the club level and make a name for myself and be a big part of this team and really be a leader for the U.S. team going forward.”
Holden’s recent form has led to questions about whether he should have been given more playing time in South Africa, but the 25-year-old midfielder is quick to point out that his form last summer was a far cry from what it is now.
“Was I playing then the way I am now? No,” Holden said. “I’ve got 16 Premier League games under my belt and a full pre-season. Back then I can honestly say I wasn’t playing as well as I am now at that point and I’m sure that had an effect on how much I played at the World Cup.”
Holden’s role with the national team is also one that will be interesting to follow. Used primarily as a winger by Bob Bradley, Holden has established himself as a quality central midfielder who is sure to get a look centrally by Bradley at some point. In fact, Bradley’s recent use of a one-forward system could give Holden more opportunities to play at his preferred position.
“We have so many good central midfielders but I would like a chance to play in there with Michael (Bradley) and Jermaine (Jones),” Holden said. “I think midfield is the strongest position we have with the national team but, at the same time I’m happy playing out wide.
“I like playing out wide,” Holden said. “The system we play, it’s not necessarily a typical winger. I can come inside and find the ball, and at the same time I can stay wide and put in some crosses.
“I just want to play on the field and I’m happy to play wherever Bob plays me.”
Holden has his sights set squarely on the future. Not on a World Cup he barely played in, or even the tackle that nearly sidetracked his career. He didn’t hold any anger toward De Jong when the two crossed paths a week ago. Enough time has passed and Holden has long since overcome the obstacle DeJong’s tackle placed in front of him.
“We didn’t really talk about him breaking my leg or any of that,” Holden said of their recent meeting. “It was fairly friendly.
“I don’t necessarily believe he tried to hurt me on purpose,” Holden said. “I managed to make it back for the World Cup and now I’m playing and back healthy.
“Obviously I’ve had some big setbacks in the past and some bad injuries and I’ve always been able to put those behind me and move forward.”
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.