By IVES GALARCEP
CLEVELAND– As the familiar U.S. Men’s National Team faces poured onto the field at FirstEnergy Stadium on Monday, one face stood out. Not because he didn’t belong, but because it had been so long since he had been seen wearing USMNT attire and preparing to play a role with the national team.
Stuart Holden is back. No, not all the way back just yet, but Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to make Holden apart of the national team’s summer plans, including both World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup, has helped boost Holden’s recovery from an injury ordeal that sidelined him for a year and a half.
Holden’s time away from the game didn’t deter Klinsmann from keeping close tabs on Holden and opening the door for him to spend the summer with the national team. It is a decision that has Holden excited about the summer.
“Jurgen spoke to me while I was on loan with Sheffield Wednesday,” Holden said. “He just said he would keep in touch, and said he would talk to both of my coaches and monitor me as the games went on and obviously he was happy with my progress. Happy enough to bring me in and now we’ll see what happens these next couple of weeks.
“As a competitor and a believer in myself I always thought there was a possibility that would happen but when he calls you and tells you, it just makes you want to work that much harder and really want to play for him as a coach,” said Holden of Klinsmann’s decision to call him up. “It’s really given me a confidence boost and hopefully that can now help me push over the line and be a better player.”
Holden has made considerable progress since returning from the knee injury that kept him sidelined for the past year and a half. Some playing time with Bolton, as well as a successful loan stint with Sheffield Wednesday, has helped him move closer to the level that once made him one of the more highly-regarded midfielders in the English Premier League, and one of the brighter prospects in the U.S. national team pool.
Holden pointed specifically to his stint with Sheffield Wednesday, which consisted of four starts, with helping clear a major hurdle in his recovery and impress Klinsmann enough to merit a summer call-up.
“I think it was really important because, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d be in this camp if I didn’t go out and get some good games in,” Holden said of his Sheffield Wednesday loan. “It wasn’t how the football was, it wasn’t the team I was playing for. It was just really about me getting some real good quality minutes under my belt. To keep ticking over, and to keep getting in a rhythm and I feel like all of that really helped me push myself an extra 10, 15 percent up the ladder.
“It’s just more of finding a full rhythm and feeling as confident as I did when I was playing at my peak probably last year,” Holden added. “It’s all been coming back, playing in the loan games I felt every game I got better, I got sharper. I felt like that player that I was again. Just being in this camp already has given me another boost up and made me feel that I think I’m really close to being there and I want to do everything I can in this camp to put myself in a position to contribute in whatever capacity that will be.”
Holden is with the national team for the first time since the last of his 17 USMNT appearances, a start in a draw vs. Colombia on Oct. 12th, 2010. After more than two and a half years away, Holden is back and while the general belief has been that he should play a key role in this summer’s Gold Cup, he isn’t ready to concede that he won’t play a part in the June World Cup qualifiers.
“Obviously the Gold Cup will be a good chance for me to play a lot of minutes, but I’m not coming in here to just be a training player,” Holden said. “I’m a competitor. I’m a believer in myself and whatever role that Jurgen sees me in I’m happy to fulfill that, but I want to make his decision difficult. If he wants to leave me out I want to make it the hardest way for him to do that by me training well and me showing that I can play a part in this team in qualification.
“The Gold Cup in ’09 was really kind of a breakout for me I think,” Holden said. “It was my first chance with the national team and I think I took that well. I went from strength to strength. Any chance I get in these big games, or to represent my country, I want to take that to the fullest and I think that, whether it’s now or next month with the Gold Cup, I plan on doing that. Then really setting myself up to have a good year and make sure I’m on that plan to Brazil.”
Watching Holden with the team this week, it is clear he has settled right back into the team despite his long time away. Klinsmann has called him a good team player who brings a needed element to the squad, not just on the field as a solid central midfielder, but as a good teammate.
“I think he definitely deserves to join our group, and there’s no pressure on Stuart at all,” Klinsmann said. “There’s no pressure. He can only win coming back in. He’s highly accepted within the entire group. He’s one of the guys that really built special chemistry. He’s a pure giver. He’s always looking for other people.”
Despite so much time away, Holden looks right at home with the national team. Now it will be up to him to regain the form he showed before the injury ordeal, and validate Klinsmann’s trust in him.
“It’s like the night before it kind of felt like the first day in school’s the next day,” said Holden. “Just coming back and being part of the group again, and just mixing in, and seeing all the guys. It really is a great feeling to represent your country, but also to just be part of this group. It’s been exciting and I’ve just been trying to work hard and we’ll see what happens.”