CLEVELAND – A lot has changed since Stuart Holden was last with the US men’s national team. There’s a new head coach, a new style of play and a new cast of role players aiming to stake their claim for a spot on the roster.
That's not stopping Holden from thinking big in terms of what he can accomplish this summer.
With the US for the first time since October 2010 and in his first camp under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Holden refuses to shy away from setting lofty goals for himself as he gets set to partake in both the World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup camps.
The 27-year-old Holden, who recently recovered from a problematic knee injury initially sustained in March 2011, is not interested in easing his way back into things with the national team, no matter how much is new to him.
Instead, he wants to get back on the field for his country sooner rather than later.
“The Gold Cup will be a good chance for me to play a lot of minutes, but I’m not coming in here just to be a training player,” Holden said on Monday. “I’m a competitor, I’m a believer in myself and whatever role [Klinsmann] 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 training well and showing that I can play a part in this team in qualification.”
That Holden is at the point to make such grand proclamations speaks volumes to how far he has come in a grueling rehabilitation process that spanned the better part of two years. Holden is slowly returning to the player he was before Manchester United defender Jonny Evans ended his stellar 2010-11 Premiership season, and the Bolton Wanderers midfielder credits his recent loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday as a big reason for that.
“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,” said Holden, who made four appearances while with the second-division Owls. “It wasn’t how the football was, it wasn’t the team I was playing for, it was just about me getting some good quality minutes under my belt and to keep ticking over and keep getting in a rhythm. I feel like all of that really helped me push me an extra 10-15 percent up the ladder.”
During Holden’s time with Sheffield, Klinsmann reached out to show support and to tell Holden that he would be monitoring him. Holden then showed enough in the following weeks to earn a call-up from Klinsmann for the Americans’ jam-packed summer, a decision that came as a surprise and even drew some criticism.
While Holden is looking to capitalize on the opportunity he has in front of him, he also knows he has some work to do to fully regain his top form. Mainly, he needs to find a “full rhythm” and return to being as confident as he was prior to suffering the knee injury.
“It’s all been coming back playing in the loan games,” said Holden. “Every game I felt I got better, I got sharper, but I felt [like] that player that I was again. And just being in this camp already is giving me another boost up and made me feel I’m really close to being there. I want to do everything I can in this camp to put myself in the position to contribute in whatever capacity.”
Holden is expected to have a shot at making a serious impression in the Gold Cup in July. That should bode well for him, considering that four years ago he used the CONCACAF tournament as a launching pad to break into the US first team before making it onto the 2010 World Cup roster.
The circumstances may be different this time around, but Holden is hoping history repeats itself.
“The Gold Cup in ’09 was really kind of a breakout for me and my first chance with the national team and I think I took that well,” said Holden. “I went from strength to strength and any chance I get in these big games to represent my country, I want to take that to the fullest.
“Whether it is now or next month in the Gold Cup, I plan on doing that and then really setting myself up to have a good year and make sure that I’m on that plane to Brazil.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.