SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Of all the ways that Stuart Holden imagined celebrating his 29th birthday, watching the San Jose Earthquakes practice at Levi's Stadium likely wasn't high on his list.
No doubt, he would have preferred to be playing. Anywhere. Yet there Holden was on Friday, along with the rest of the NBC Sports crew, prepping for Saturday's broadcast of the Quakes' match with the Seattle Sounders. And he looked to be completely in his element. His trademark hair was perfectly coiffed, per usual. His sunglasses were perched perfectly on his nose. And combined with the broadcast work he did for ESPN during the World Cup, he feels he's getting more comfortable with each game, although he finds the concept of interviewing former teammates more than a bit awkward.
"It's a little bit different when I'm sitting there interviewing Chris Wondolowski, a guy that I've played with however many times, sitting on set with him talking," said Holden as he surveyed the scene at the just-completed stadium. "Or a pregame interview with Clint Dempsey. We laugh about it before we go on camera. Then it's Zoolander-at-work mode."
Holden added that broadcasting is something he'd like to pursue further, but he's informed NBC that, "I'm not quite ready to do that full-time just yet."
That's because Holden still holds out hope of returning to the field. The past 3 1/2 years have made him the soccer equivalent of Sisyphus, although what reason the soccer gods have for tormenting the always-upbeat Holden isn't clear.
After spending more than two years recovering from a variety of injuries first brought about by a horror tackle from Manchester United defender Jonny Evans, Holden appeared to be back at last, showing well in the 2013 Gold Cup. But just 18 minutes into the final against Panama, Holden tore the ACL in his right knee. He battled back to take the field in a reserve game with club side Bolton Wanderers last March, but he lasted just 23 minutes when the graft used to repair his ACL gave way.
To hear Holden describe it, the play seemed innocuous enough. He attempted to close down a player on the sideline. The opponent cut sharply, so did Holden. So far, so good. But then he stuck out his leg in an attempt to block a pass, and when his foot landed, he crumpled to the ground in agony.
"I knew straight away what had happened, but I didn't want to believe it," he said. "As soon as I came off the field, I got the MRI, and there was maybe a day of feeling sorry for myself. Then it was like, 'Let's get this surgery done, let's get back on the horse and let's do this.'"
Holden now admits that he pushed his comeback too quickly.
"I think maybe I was trying to get back for the World Cup," he said. "All that together, it was just a bad recipe."
And so Holden was once again forced to watch while others played the game he loves, something that he felt even more acutely given that it was a World Cup year, and that he was still very close to the U.S. program. Yet it allowed him to view the country's burgeoning interest in the tournament in a way he never had before.
"What I did love was going to bars and watching the games with thousands of fans, and seeing the passion for a soccer game, and guys who would never know who Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey are, having water-cooler talk about them," he said. "It was cool hearing these names who are household names, and guys trying to analyze soccer. I'm cringing in one sense, but in the other sense, it's a pretty cool thing to see it unfold."
Yet now Holden is eager to move forward. At present, he is 4 1/2 months into his latest round of rehab, and he's altered his approach. Rather than ping-pong back and forth between the U.S. and England, Holden's entire program will take place in L.A., with renowned ACL rehab specialist Holly Silvers. Holden added that he's been running and cutting, and he is set to begin working with the ball on Monday. He hopes to eventually participate in some practice sessions with the L.A. Galaxy, although he's the first to admit there's no rush.
"I'm taking my time this time," he said. "I don't want this one to go wrong."
Holden seems to sense that he's running out of chances. Or that perhaps this is his last chance, at least in terms of playing in Europe. It begs the question of why he's putting himself through the grind of another grueling rehab program. He seems to have slipped seamlessly into a second career, and he's due to be married to fiancee Karalyn West next June.
But the adrenaline rush of playing can be impossible to resist, and the fact remains that its allure is the primary motivation for Holden now.
"I still have that hunger, that desire, that drive that wills me on every day in the gym when you're going through tough days to keep going," he said.
At the moment, Holden is out of contract, and he says there is currently no offer on the table from Bolton. But his plan is to head back to his old club this fall even though they will no doubt look at Holden's ability to contribute with a skeptical eye.
"We had discussions before I left, and it's something that will pick up again once I'm a little bit closer to playing," he said. "Right now, they're in preseason, and they'll be busy with other things. It's important that I get that one-on-one care and make sure that I take care of myself first and foremost."
Another motivating factor is the loyalty the club showed Holden during his many injuries. It's something he's desperate to repay, so he's determined to give it another shot.
"It's not been easy on me, and I feel the frustration of not only the Bolton fans but everyone associated with the club," he said. "I feel it tenfold because I, for one, want to be out there on the field."
The ensuing months will reveal if his body will let him get there.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.