Stuart Holden a 'work in progress'
For Stuart Holden, playing a full match has become anything but routine, and United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann says the midfielder is still not at full strength as he attempts to recover from a severe knee injury and make the U.S. squad for the 2014 World Cup.
Holden, who has fought his knee injury for 2½ years, finally got in a full 90 for the first time since September 2011 on Tuesday when the United States beat Costa Rica 1-0 in the Gold Cup.
"Stuart is a work in progress," Klinsmann said. "We started with that after his season was over in England and we had many talks, and we said we'd take it one day at a time. He's a workaholic and he can't get enough. We've got to build him and that's what we're doing."
Holden played well enough Tuesday but wasn't much of a factor as the Americans won their eighth straight match for the first time ever. Still, just being able to go the distance was a major achievement for the 27-year-old Holden.
"That was my first 90 in an official game, and it felt great," he said. "I still had plenty of gas in the tank at the end, and it's something you wonder about until you play the full match. I want to play every minute of every game. I thought I had a pretty good game and contributed in different ways."
Holden's recent history has been a painful one. He broke his right leg on a vicious tackle by the Netherlands' Nigel de Jong in March 2010. He hurt his left knee against Manchester United from a Jonny Evans tackle a year later. Holden returned from surgery for a League Cup match against Aston Villa that September, then needed more surgery eight days later.
He was out until January of this year, returning for three substitute appearances for Bolton, then four starts during a one-month loan to Sheffield Wednesday and another last-minute cameo for Bolton.
"I've been dealing with injuries and now it's over and I have been moving on," Holden said. "I want to be at my best as soon as I can, but if I am at 90 percent, I will give everything I have.
"Playing soccer again, being on the team and around the guys, it's what I have been working for."
Any hopes of making a second World Cup team depend not only on Holden getting and staying healthy, but also making an impression on Klinsmann and his staff.
Klinsmann has been using the Gold Cup to look at veterans such as Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley who have been maintstays of past U.S. teams, and to gauge the skills of youngsters such as Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona and Brek Shea.
Holden falls in the middle of those groups. He also faces stiff competition in the midfield, a particularly strong position right now.
Fortunately, he has a fan in Klinsmann, who has shown a willingness to give every candidate a chance to impress during the countdown to Brazil 2014.
"Going 90 minutes, and even in the last 10 minutes chasing down people, it was great to see," Klinsmann said about Holden's play Tuesday. It gives us a very valuable option going forward at midfield. I'm glad about his progress."
So are Holden's teammates. Beasley, a member of the last three World Cup squads, praises Holden's "fighting spirit." Donovan, coming off a self-imposed four-month hiatus from the sport but still a key to American fortunes on the world stage, calls Holden "relentless." Klinsmann thinks Holden's outgoing, encouraging personality helps the group.
At his best, Holden sparks the offense with long diagonal passes and penetrating runs. He hasn't shown much of that in the Gold Cup -- his passing was solid against Costa Rica, though -- and it's probably unfair to expect too much from him this soon.
Just being on the field for his national team, which plays El Salvador on Sunday at Baltimore in the quarterfinals, is a huge step.
"It doesn't really matter what you have done in the past," said Holden, who was born in Scotland but grew up in Sugar Land, Texas. "I get on the field and I have to show what I can do now, and what I can for this team.
"I put the most pressure on myself to perform, and I don't think about anything from anywhere else. I am here to contribute in whatever way I can."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.